While many of us have let our gym routines fall by the wayside on account of the pandemic, and general turmoil, that took over our lives. If ever we needed to be more empathetic, as a species, it’s now. Fortunately, like the muscles in our bodies, we can become “fitter” when it comes to our empathy too – all it takes is a little training. Here are some exercises for empathy, prescribed by Stanford psychology professor Jamil Zaki PhD, which can help you be a better human in these trying times.
But wait, what is empathy in the first place?
According to Greater Good Magazine, 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”. It’s different from pity in that empathetic people often share in the feelings of those around them, or mirror them, rather than look at them from the outside.
This is important, because it’s vital step towards compassionate action which, quite literally, can make the world a better place.
According to Dr Zaki, the ability to feel empathy doesn’t only benefit the receivers of that empathy. “People who experience empathy also tend to be less stressed and depressed, more satisfied with their lives, happier in their relationships, and more successful at work,” he said in a TEDxMarin talk. Fortunately, it’s also a skill that we can work on and improve!
So how can we train ourselves to be more empathetic?
Dr Zaki recommends using the following 5 exercises for empathy to train yourself to be a kinder, more compassionate person:
#1: Start within:
In order to increase our capacity for empathy for others, we need to start by cultivating healthy self compassion. Dr Zaki recommends imagining a situation in which you felt upset by something, and then imagining a friend coming to you with that same problem. Chances are, how you’d respond to your friend and how you’d treat yourself in the same situation are very different.
Perhaps you’re harsher and more critical when it’s you who’s experiencing the difficulty. Over-achievers will find this exercise particularly challenging.
None of us have infinite capacity for compassion and empathy, but by starting within, we can strengthen our empathy so that we’ll have more to give others when they need it.
#2: Spend more when you’re feeling spent
This one seems counterintuitive, but it’s been tried and tested. Dr Zaki says that when you’re feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by the daily grind, spending on someone else – whether it’s time, money, or energy – even in the smallest way, might help.
“Building empathy isn’t necessarily about donating half of your salary to charity. It’s about the little things that we do each day,” says Dr. Zaki. “It’s about habits of mind.”
This can mean picking up something small for your partner while you’re at the supermarket, calling a friend who’s having a tough week, or picking a flower for your mum on the way over to her house. Instead of letting the pressures of life cause you to turn inwards, use empathy and thoughtfulness for others to pull you out of your own slump.
According to Dr. Zaki, “Students are happily surprised to find that when they give to others, they don’t end up depleting themselves”.
“Happiness and well-being are not a zero-sum situation.”
#3: Use your tech
Dr Zaki recommends using the technology at our disposal to do more than just like and comment. “Try to be intentional about technology as a medium in which human connection can exist and which you can try to pursue that connection,” he advises.
We easily get so engrossed in our phone screens, only to look up and find that we’ve wasted a lot of time on scrolling through feeds that aren’t adding value or connection to our lives. Take a minute every time you look up from your screen to assess what you’ve gained (or not gained) by your time on your phone. How can you utilise that time better next time?
Perhaps, instead of leaving a string of emojis on your friend’s photos, use that time to connect – set up a coffee date, or even give them a call. Also make sure that the feed you’re looking at has been curated to amplify positive emotions rather than negative ones. “The worst thing you can do for your sense of human connection,” Zaki says, “Is to just lurk on various platforms and let anger and other negative feelings seep into you like a young Darth Vader.”
#4: It’s OK to disagree
You’re not always going to agree with others, but that doesn’t mean that every conversation needs to turn into a heated debate. When you come across a difference opinions, try to explain how you reached your own opinion, and ask the person you’re speaking to to explain how they reached theirs.
Naturally, you’ll need to try this exercise with someone who’s going to be receptive to it, and not just shut you down or start spouting verbal abuse at you.
The purpose of this exercise is not necessarily to change anyone’s mind – you can go your separate ways still holding on to your differing beliefs. Instead, the point is to prove that you can respect someone, and remain on good terms with them, even as you agree to disagree. It’s also an exercise in listening – a skill that’s very useful when it comes to expanding our capacity for empathy.
#5: Acknowledge empathy in others
Finally, just as you’d compliment somebody on their fashion choices or their exceptional taste in dining room wallpaper, praise empathy when you encounter it in others. The last in Dr Zaki’s prescribed exercises for empathy is taking the time to commend the people you associate with when you notice empathy in them. “A lot of our attention tends to go towards the loudest voices, which are not necessarily the kindest voices,” Dr Zaki points out. “When we notice the good around us, it balances our attention a little bit.”
Try this with your friends and family, or even if you have a moment during meetings at work. By shifting the focus to the kindness in the room, it can set the tone for the entire meeting and the work day as a whole. And often that has a ripple effect that expands even further than anticipated.
“There’s a fair amount of research on kindness contagion — the idea that when we see it, we’re more likely to engage in it ourselves,” adds Dr. Zaki. “By calling kindness out, we’re more likely to make it magnetic through that social force.”
If we all choose to be a little more empathetic, the world will undoubtedly be a more peaceful place. It just starts with small changes to our routines, that will eventually help us strengthen that muscle just like any other. Try these exercises for empathy all at once, or take them one at a time and see how things around you begin to change for the better.