How to Strengthen Your Empathy Muscle
Because it's needed more than ever right now.
Empathy, by definition, describes the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another. Yet in our current, highly charged political atmosphere, practicing empathy must go beyond merely understanding each other. It also must be about taking compassionate action in support of others.
As Michelle Obama put it in her speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention: "It is up to us to add our voices and our votes to the course of history, echoing heroes like John Lewis who said, ‘When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something.’ That is the truest form of empathy: not just feeling, but doing; not just for ourselves or our kids, but for everyone, for all our kids."
(Note that while empathy is often conflated with sympathy, they're not the same. Sympathy means viewing the emotional experience of another from the outside, whereas empathy is viewing the emotional experience of another by taking in those emotions and experiencing them from the inside.)
Read on to learn how you can cultivate more empathy in your life at this pivotal time, and put it into action to shape not only our country's political policies, but also the lives of its citizens.
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Have an open mind — and respect for others.
One of the first steps to practicing empathy is to become aware of your surroundings, including the perspectives of other individuals. Realize that not everyone will have the same beliefs as you, but that doesn't mean you dismiss their viewpoints.
Yes, that even includes your political opponents. "Each of us can learn from others, especially about complex and controversial issues — unless we already know everything, and they know nothing at all, which is never the case," says Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, PhD, an ethics professor Duke University. While it may feel uncomfortable at first, having an open mind to learning new perspectives may lead to greater consideration and understanding.
How can you demonstrate to others that you have an open mind and are truly listening to their perspective? Not only should you respond compassionately, but also showcase empathetic body language, explains Zlatin Ivanov, MD, a psychiatrist based in New York City. Look them in the eyes, try not to cross your arms or raise your voice and position your body toward them if possible (even if you're on Zoom!).
Finally, try not to interrupt or speak over someone else before they're finished (ahem, President Trump!). Active listening involves trying to understand others' perspectives before responding, Ivanov explains. "By focusing on what they are saying, we can understand their needs and information more accurately. This not only helps in resolving conflicts but also helps develop a culture of respect."
Acknowledge your privilege.
Privilege has become an incredibly heated term these days, especially in political conversations. Often it's used in a negative light, pointing out how certain groups have special “entitlements,” separating them from others. But the term doesn't need to be so divisive.
It can also be about mitigating the vast power differentials in society and uplifting marginalized people who do not have those privileges in comparison to everyone else, says Krystal Kavita Jagoo, MSW, a registered social worker. Despite how defensive people can get when the topic of privilege arises, it only means that you possess an unearned advantage through an aspect of your identity, in comparison to others.
During this election season, if you do have one of those advantages, be sure to use your privilege to uplift others. Consider acts of kindness for others, whether it's driving an elderly voter to a polling booth, volunteering at a polling site or donating devices to households for individuals to attend virtual town halls. These actions can enforce social reciprocity among communities, says Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, who also teaches online courses on Coursera.
Start digging into resources for your self-education, and don’t stop there.
Diversify your life.
The beauty of our country lies in its rich diversity. Yet it’s all too easy to forget about our fellow citizens outside of our inner circle.
“Each of us carries a unique set of beliefs that result from so many socializing forces throughout our life: our families, our educational experiences, the places we’ve lived, the culture we’ve consume and so much more,” says Sabine Chishty, a diversity and inclusion consultant and course instructor at Brooklyn College. “When we see the convergences and multitudes of identities, and corresponding privileges and disadvantages, we can be more specific and targeted in our work to build a better world.”
Navigating diversity, equity and inclusion requires intersectional thinking, explains Chishty. This means piecing together how race, class, gender and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap. When thinking about a certain political belief or policy stand, for example, ask yourself: How does it impact people of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds — beyond my own?
Also, continue to learn, change and repeat! “Educate yourself, translate that knowledge into small but powerful shifts in your behavior and do it all over again,” Chishty suggests. You can start by learning about the perspectives, histories and realities of people who do not share your identity — without tokenizing those people to educate you. “Plenty of people — like me — have made ourselves and our stories available to engage others as they learn,” she explains. “Start digging into resources for your self-education, and don’t stop there.”
We all make mistakes. But in our current “cancel culture,” it’s become popular to eviscerate the wrongdoer, by publicly shaming, shunning or refusing to acknowledge that person before they have a chance to explain their point of view. A better tactic: Helping them understand their mistake, and empowering them to grow from it, Joordens says.
Empathy and forgiveness are deeply intertwined, too. A 2016 study found that empathic individuals were more likely to forgive a transgressor without having experiencing a similar situation, which confirmed previous findings that empathy encourages conciliatory behavior.
Keep in mind that forgiving someone’s mistakes does not mean that you accept or agree with the behavior, Joordens reminds us. Instead, it cultivates compassion, understanding and yes, empathy, by sparking growth from what had happened.
To echo Michelle Obama's words, empathy is nothing without action. And voting is one of the most powerful ways you can put empathy into action. Even if your life is well-established — and you're lucky enough not to lack nutritious food, housing, certain civil rights or health insurance — it's your civic duty use your vote to help shape America’s overall health and well-being. Learn everything you need to know about voting in 2020 here, along with other ways you can help impact the election.