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September 15, 2015 12:01 AM EDT
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Does it ever feel like people are all self-absorbed jerks? Like they’re not listening? Only in it for themselves?

You’re not crazy. Empathy is declining.

Via Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It:

It’s easy to believe that people are just selfish. That it’s human nature. There’s no denying we do think a lot about our own needs, and classical economics might lead you to believe that’s all there is.

But new research says there’s more to us than that.

Via Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It:

Yes, there are zero-empathy psychopaths out there but they are a very, very small part of the population. The vast majority of us are wired to care.

(To learn which professions have the most psychopaths, click here.)

We all need empathy. Even selfish people do. Here’s how the power of empathy can improve your life, and how you can develop more of it.


How Empathy Brings Happiness (And Oscars)

Want to be happier? Be more empathetic.

Via Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It:

Plain and simple: empathy is the cornerstone of good relationships and good relationships are the cornerstone of happiness.

Via Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It:

And the power of empathy is wired pretty deeply into us. How deep?

Want to know who your real friends are? Yawn. Really. Go ahead and yawn. We all know yawns are contagious but the more someone cares about you, the more contagious your yawns are:

But what about that Oscar? (C’mon, I know you’ve rehearsed your speech in the bathroom mirror.)

As a method actor, Academy Award Winner Daniel Day-Lewis goes beyond the pale to understand and relate to the characters he portrays.

Via Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It:

On the other hand, many doctors have less empathy than your average Starbucks barista. Seriously. (In fact, research shows medical school actually reduces empathy.)

But what happens when you make sure doctors are empathetic when they work? Their performance goes up — a lot. Here’s Wharton professor Adam Grant:

And other research shows that doctors with empathy heal you faster.

So what are doctors doing to resolve their empathy deficit? They’re trying to win that Oscar: yes, some doctors are now using method acting techniques to show more empathy.

Via Impression Management in the Workplace: Research, Theory, and Practice:

You can be happier, improve your relationships, and maybe even be better at your job with empathy. (Plus win an Oscar.)

And when success does not end up bringing happiness, why might that be? Because those people are too busy and aren’t making empathy a priority.

Via Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:

(To learn the 8 things the happiest people do every day, click here.)

So empathy is a big deal. But what is it… really?


What Empathy Is

It’s using your imagination to step into someone else’s shoes.

Via Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It:

That’s pretty good. Want a great definiton of empathy? Check out this moving video explanation by Brene Brown:

Now empathy isn’t a cure-all. Researcher Paul Bloom has pointed out that we can overdo it. And he has a point. Our vision of empathy does need a software update. Let’s call it “Empathy 1.1.”

We all learned “The Golden Rule” growing up:

But again, this is still coming from you; what you want. That may not be what they want.

For true empathy, the focus needs to be on them. So golden ain’t good enough. Forget it. We’re going platinum.

Roman Krznaric suggests this for “The Platinum Rule.”

Via Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It:

(For tips from Wharton professor Adam Grant on how to do good without exhausting yourself, click here.)

So what are the best ways to grow your empathy muscles? Here are 3:


1) Listen

Let’s look at an extreme example: hostage situations. You might think when someone kidnaps people the best thing to do is let the SWAT guys storm the place. Wrong.

Via Crisis Negotiations: Managing Critical Incidents and Hostage Situations in Law Enforcement and Corrections:

What really worked? Talking.

Via Crisis Negotiations: Managing Critical Incidents and Hostage Situations in Law Enforcement and Corrections:

And what was the key factor? Yeah, you guessed it: empathy. How does the FBI get there? Listening.

I doubt you’re dealing with anything as high stakes as hostage negotiation but listening is always good.

We can use FBI hostage negotiation techniques to learn how to be better listeners. But we need to add something to make sure they’re ready for regular old conversations. What’s that?

Vulnerability. How do you do that? I’m glad you asked.

Via Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It:

How do you know when you’re really opening up? The brilliant Brene Brown has a great idea: “vulnerability hangovers.”

Via Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It:

No, just connecting online doesn’t count. Too much computer time can hurt your social skills and communicating via email can turn you into a jerk.

Facebook makes you happier when you use it to plan face-to-face get togethers. When you use it to replace face-to-face meetings, it makes you miserable.

(To learn how to make difficult conversations easy, click here.)

Listening is powerful but dealing with people can be hard. What’s something you can do on your own?


2) Meditate

It’s not just for hippies anymore! Science shows meditation has many powerful effects including making you happier and increasing empathy.

A specific type is really good at increasing empathy: Loving-Kindness Meditation.

Yes, it sounds corny. And doing it is corny. But research from Stanford shows it works.

How do you feel when you think about loved ones? Warm and fuzzy. Why keep pictures of your kids or your partner on your desk or in your wallet? Even more fuzzies.

That’s the goal here, really. We want to broaden the fuzzy. Fuzzy momentum, if you will. Extend the fuzzy feelings from those you already are compassionate toward to neutral and even to difficult people.

The best instructions I’ve found (that have no scientific jargon or mentions of woodland spirits) come from 10% Happier, the great book by Dan Harris:

Don’t get too worried about details. It’s not a magic spell and this ain’t Hogwart’s. You can customize it. The important thing is wishing others well and expanding that feeling from those you feel strongly about to a wider and wider circle of people.

(For my interview with Good Morning America anchor and meditation-skeptic-turned-believer Dan Harris, click here.)

So you’re giving meditation a shot. What’s a fun way to develop empathy?


3) Expose Yourself To Different Ways Of Living

When we see people different from us we’re more likely to connect with them emotionally. Think of it as “mental diversity training.”

Hang out with those who are different from you. And then listen.

Via Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential–and Endangered:

Spending time with people from other cultures doesn’t just increase empathy, it also makes you more creative.

Maybe you’re an introvert. (Me too!) Want to bolster empathy without leaving the house or talking to anyone? Yes, you can.

Reading fiction increases empathy and makes us more likely to do kind things for others:

Does this really work? Some researchers think reading helped end slavery. Seriously.

Via Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It:

Don’t like reading? Netflix binges can help too:

Want your kids to have empathy? Reading and the right TV shows are great but music lessons and playtime are important too. And get them that puppy they’re dying for.

Via 100 Simple Secrets Why Dogs Make Us Happy:

(To learn the secret to getting people to like you, click here.)

Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Time to round it up and get a few more insights with another awesome video…


Sum Up

Here’s how to be more empathetic:

  • Listen. And then open up until you have a “vulnerability hangover.”
  • Try meditation. Broaden the loving fuzzy feelings past family and friends.
  • Expose yourself to different ways of living. Hang out with different people. If it can end slavery, it can help you.

Empathy doesn’t just have the power to change our lives, it can also change the world:

As Roman Krznaic recounts in his book, Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, Muhammad Ali addressed the graduating class at Harvard in 1975. The champ was known for coming up with clever poems, so an audience member asked him to recite one.

At a length of exactly two words, what followed may very well be the shortest poem in recorded history. Ali said:

It’s a pithy reminder of the importance of empathy. Introspection only gets you so far. We need some “outrospection” to really live good lives.

If you learned something from this, share it with others and start a conversation. Let’s spread some empathy. The world needs it. :)

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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