Researchers often differentiate between emotional and cognitive empathy. We show emotional empathy when we are in harmony with another person’s sensations and feelings, their inner emotional world (What is Empathy?). We physically feel what other people feel.
We show cognitive empathy when we are able to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions. We know how the other person feels, and what they might be thinking. According to Roman Krznaric, empathy is “the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions”.
How can we develop empathy as a part of our daily lives? Research in sociology, psychology, and history shows we can begin by practicing the Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.
Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers
Cultivating curiosity requires more than having a brief chat about the weather. Crucially, it tries to understand the world inside the head of the other person. We are confronted by strangers every day, like the heavily tattooed woman who delivers your mail or the new employee who always eats his lunch alone. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage.
Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
We all have assumptions about others and use collective labels—e.g., “Muslim fundamentalist,” “welfare mom”—that prevent us from appeciating their individuality.
Challenge your own preconceptions and prejudices. Consciously stop and take the time to be mindful of what you share with people, rather than what divides you.
Habit 3: Try another person’s life
Expand your empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives, putting into practice the Native American proverb, “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.”
Habit 4: Listen hard—and open up
We can listen deeply and open ourselves up to others by practicing radical listening and by making ourselves vulnerable.
We can practice radical listening by;
Being present to what’s really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment.
We can make ourselves vulnerable by;
Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding—an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.
Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change
Empathy can also be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change… The big challenge is figuring out how social networking technology can harness the power of empathy to create mass political action… This will only happen if social networks learn to spread not just information, but empathic connection.
Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination
The 20th century was the Age of Introspection, when self-help and therapy culture encouraged us to believe that the best way to understand who we are and how to live was to look inside ourselves. But it left us gazing at our own navels. The 21st century should become the Age of Empathy, when we discover ourselves not simply through self-reflection, but by becoming interested in the lives of others. We need empathy to create a new kind of revolution. Not an old-fashioned revolution built on new laws, institutions, or policies, but a radical revolution in human relationships.
- The Ashoka Foundation’s Start Empathy initiative tracks educators’ best practices for teaching empathy.
- The initiative gave awards to 14 programs judged to do the best job at educating for empathy.
- The nonprofit Playworks also offers eight strategies for developing empathy in children.