If you think you’re hearing the word “empathy” everywhere, you’re right. But there is a vital question that few people ask: How can I expand my own empathic potential? Empathy is not just a way to extend the boundaries of your moral universe it’s a habit we can cultivate to improve the quality of our own lives.
But what is empathy? It’s 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. That makes it different from kindness or pity. And don’t confuse it with the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We can nurture its growth throughout our lives—and we can use it as a radical force for social transformation.
Here are the Six Habits of Highly Empathic People!
Habit 1: Cultivate Curiosity about Strangers
Highly empathic people have an insatiable curiosity about strangers. They will talk to the person sitting next to them on the bus, having retained that natural inquisitiveness we all had as children, but which society is so good at beating out of us. They find other people more interesting than themselves but are not out to interrogate them, respecting the advice of the oral historian Studs Terkel: “Don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer.”
Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and worldviews very different from our own. Curiosity is good for us too! 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. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage.
Habit 2: Challenge and Discover Commonalities
We all have assumptions about others and use collective labels that prevent us from appreciating their individuality. Highly empathic people challenge their own preconceptions by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them.
Habit 3: Try Another Person’s Life
So you think ice climbing and hang-gliding are extreme sports? Then you need to try experiential empathy, the most challenging—and potentially rewarding—of them all. Highly empathic people expand their empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives, putting into practice the proverb, “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.”
Habit 4: Listen Hard—and Open up
There are two traits required for being an empathic conversationalist. One is to master the art of radical listening. “What is essential, is our ability to be present to what’s really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment.” Highly empathic people listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs, whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer or a spouse who is upset at them for working late yet again.
But listening is never enough. The second trait is to make ourselves vulnerable. 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—and exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.
Habit 5: Develop an Ambitious Imagination
A final trait of Highly empathic people is that they do far more than empathize with the usual suspects. We tend to believe empathy should be reserved for those living on the social margins or who are suffering. This is necessary, but it is hardly enough. We also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way. Empathizing with adversaries is also a route to social tolerance.