13 Tips to Turn Up Your Empathy

photo cred: David Drexler http://tinyurl.com/j36ldav

There are a myriad of things that we can say are “wrong with the world.” I often find myself in that boat with a one-way ticket to melancholy dwelling on the seemingly hopelessness of the state of global affairs today.

This post isn’t about those specific issues. The countless atrocities committed on basic human rights by governments and institutions with the upper hand and a quest for global capitalistic domination. Add in the desecration of the planet and misinformation that’s lobbied and bought solely to confuse the general public, and we may have found the equation for the evil genius.

No, this post is strictly anti-mope. This post is hope. It’s fruitless to dwell in the feeling that there’s nothing we can do. The #1 problem out of all the problems this world is facing is the lack of empathy. The lack of empathy exhibited by those in power is why human rights still have to be fought for and the reason white privilege is a thing. Greed for money and power obviously play into this, but since this greed trumps the human obligation of the golden rule, a lack of empathy is still the first cause of all the world’s problems. If empathy was involved, degrading the planet and the lives of entire populations wouldn’t even be considered.

If you’re like me and have ever felt small and worthless compared to the system, there is something you can do. If you make a point to be consciously empathetic, you’re addressing the biggest problem in the world just by being a decent human being.

The following tips may seem straightforward, but without conscious effort of their implementation, it can be easy to slip back into the socially-conditioned mindset of dehumanizing judgment that is detrimental to building and sustaining authentic relationships. I’m not trying to insult your intelligence. Ignorant people don’t even bother with building the skill of empathy, so please don’t be offended. This judgmental mindset cultivates and prolongs unnecessary anger and misunderstanding, which equals unhappiness. All of this is buried deep in our subconscious. It’s hard work undoing social conditioning, which is why we must start with the basics.

So, without further ado, here are 13 ways to turn up your empathy. Oh, and…

Love your mother. People before profit.

1. Understand what empathy is.

The root of empathy is understanding. Not even necessarily comprehension, which is empathy at its finest, but understanding simply that you are an individual and here is this other individual. Achieving empathy is connecting with others in a way that allows them to share their feelings and experiences with you. You have a belief system, and so do they. Being empathetic means recognizing that belief systems are entirely subjective. This is important because all action is based on belief systems. Every single thing.

2. Understand what empathy is not.

I can’t stress enough that empathy is not synonymous with sympathy. They can definitely be experienced simultaneously, but it is entirely possibly to experience empathy without sympathy. Sympathy without empathy can sometimes be worse than experiencing neither.

Sympathy often encompasses pity, which people do not want. It’s another form of social conditioning to reject pity, but the fact is that pity often makes achieving empathy impossible because it causes the person you’re trying to connect with to close their mind to you. This obviously makes understanding their point-of-view difficult. Sympathy is clearly a useful skill to draw upon in some scenarios. Wishing another person wasn’t experiencing the grief they were or that they weren’t in a specific situation are useful things to be able to do, but feeling sorry for someone doesn’t make you empathetic.

3. Become a humanitarian.

This is the first step of action to increased empathetic capacity. Constitutions are plagued with policies and laws that are written from extremely narrow points-of-view and serve no purpose but to satisfy a tiny portion of a population (the one that wrote it.)

You’ll know you’re beginning to understand what empathy is when governmental actions that aim to hinder or restrict the rights of certain groups of people start to make you angry. If you find yourself thinking, “Who are they to waste time writing laws that do nothing but interfere with personal, private matters just because they believe in X?” then you’re on the right track. This is the line of thinking that causes revolutions.

I’m not saying in order to be empathetic you have to quit your day job and become an activist, but adopting a humanistic mindset will alter the way you view the world. That can make all the difference. Begin to look at other people through a lens that defines them only as a fellow human being. Strip away the things that degrade their value based on your personal belief system. Being truly empathetic means understanding that your system of beliefs is only relevant to you and those who share it. With this in mind, you’ll gain a sense of compassion that makes humanitarianism inevitable.

4. Learn the difference between subjectivity and objectivity.

This is more complex than subjectivity=opinion; objectivity=fact. Even facts are only considered objective because we need a sense of reality. Facts change all the time. I could argue that objectivity doesn’t actually exist, but that would take a book (or future post) to fully discuss.

For the purpose of functioning in larger society, I’ll define objectivity as encompassing things that can’t be refuted by current science and subjectivity as everything else.

That means lifestyles, belief systems, concepts of efficiency, productivity, and the best way to do X are all completely subjective. Realize now that what works for you doesn’t mean it works for anyone else. It may not even work for you tomorrow.

5. Learn about animism.

The most elementary definition of animism is the belief that animals, plants, and objects have a spiritual essence. This worldview is embodied in a variety of ways through religions and lifestyles, so animism can mean fairly different things from one context to another.

If you think this sounds like some sort of hocus pocus or voodoo, then you’re slipping back into a socially-conditioned judgmental mindset. Even the connotation of words like voodoo and hocus pocus in Western societies is a perfect example of our conditioned lack of empathy.

Just by opening your mind to the concept of animism you can greatly increase your capacity for empathy. It’s easiest to start with animals. Some belief systems include the lack of spiritual essence or souls in anything other than humans. Even if you don’t believe animals have souls, whatever “soul” means to you, it’s easy to see that they experience feeling. They can clearly feel pain and pleasure, and it’s becoming more obvious and scientifically supported that they feel emotions. Being able to connect with beings without the use of language is one step closer to connecting with the more complex consciousness of humans.

6. Listen first. Then speak.

…or don’t speak at all. There’s not much more to say than that. Listen and ask questions until you can understand the other person’s perspective. If you never reach full comprehension of another’s situation, making negative comments doesn’t benefit anyone. The criticism is irrelevant to whomever it’s directed at because it’s obvious you don’t understand, and you just stay angry and single-minded.

7. Listen to understand, not to reply.

I’m guilty of this probably every day. I’ll be listening to someone’s account of one thing or another and try to keep things in mind that relates to what they’re saying to tell them when their story is done. As soon as I start making mental notes of what to say next, it becomes more and more difficult to truly listen and understand what I’m hearing. What if the person says something that refutes or makes irrelevant what I was going to say? Then my thinking becomes muddled as I realize I misunderstood them in the first place, and then I’m not listening at all.

This is the hardest on this list for me to do. It seems to go against my nature to not have something prepared to say as soon as it’s my turn to respond. What actually ends up happening is by doing this, I end up contributing much less thoughtful and valuable words to the conversation. Even if it takes a little bit longer to respond, practicing this tip will lead to deeper and richer conversations.

8. Become more open-minded.

This basically goes hand in hand with empathy. Being open-minded isn’t about adopting another lifestyle, but about knowing it’s perfectly okay that the person sitting next to you values different things than you. Don’t hold that person accountable with your system just as you don’t expect to be charged of a crime of theirs that you don’t apply to yourself.

This is the bare minimum of open-mindedness. To reach an empathetic level of open-mindedness requires a genuine, nonjudgmental curiosity about ways of doing things other than your own. Being able to quell the instinct to judge another based on a personal value you hold is being open-minded.

9. Revel in uniqueness.

As Ole Golly says,

“There are as many ways to live in this world as there are people in this world, and each one deserves a closer look.”

This a step up from open-mindedness. This is loving the diversity life throws in your face every day, not running from it. Being eager to meet new people that live differently than you and seeing the beauty in almost anything is a powerful way to live. Being able to revel in uniqueness is a quality unique in itself, which is unfortunate and explains why we live in a nearly empathy-void society.

10. Don’t jump to conclusions.

To make assumptions is to make an ass out of you and me. At least this is how my mom taught me to remember there are two S’s in the word. Making assumptions, jumping to conclusions, and applying labels to people and their ideas is the opposite of open-mindedness and greatly restricts a person’s capacity for empathy. Everyone accidentally does this sometimes, so the best thing to do is try to recognize when you’re slapping labels on things without fully investigating what you’re looking at.

And what if your conclusion turns out to be true? Well, how about that. Your thoughts and values are completely your own creation, so if something is what you thought it was and you have a negative reaction to it, there’s something deeper in yourself you need to investigate.

11. Follow the Golden Rule.

As obvious as this sounds and as much as we hear it, it’s amazing how often this rule is pushed aside. Treat others as you’d like to be treated.

This one is really that simple. Would you like to be devalued and mistreated based on something you don’t personally believe in? No. You don’t expect to be held accountable for something you never sought to achieve, so don’t hang your virtues over other people and let them impact the way you view them.

12. Learn to love learning.

Have you picked up on this theme yet? How do we achieve empathy and compassion between one another without learning? Learning is essential to comprehending anything. By learning to love learning, you’ll inevitably become more open-minded and begin reveling in uniqueness. You’ll no longer be running away from ideas that once scared you, but inviting them in. You’ll become curious and realize it’s impossible to be bored if you love to learn about other people and cultures.

13. Increase your capacity to love.

And the greatest of them is love. If you decide to practice any of these tips to increase your empathetic capacity, you’ll become even more compassionate than you already are. Reading this post is already a gigantic step toward cultivating true empathy because you’re interested in building this skill. Unconditional love is the purest form of empathy. I know how hard it is to offer compassion to those who seem undeserving or utterly wretched, but making the decision to love them anyway will not only improve their situation if they choose to receive it, but your own life. If you can expand the circle of your love to encompass anyone, you can’t really be disappointed can you? If you love someone at their worst, imagine how gratifying loving them will be when they reach their full potential. And if they don’t, well, you loved them in the first place.

Go and begin consciously applying at least a few of these tips to your life. You’ll feel rejuvenated, and so will those who come in contact with you.