How to Become More Empathetic

How empathetic are you? Empathy is a fundamental quality of great trusted advisors, and it’s worth engaging in a moment of self-reflection to see if and how you can improve your empathy. Here are nine ways you can improve your empathy. In this post, I share the first five:

Put yourself into unfamiliar situations where you have neither mastery nor control. These challenges can be physical, such as learning a new sport or undertaking a wilderness experience. Or, they can be intellectual—taking on assignments in a new industry, for example, where you have to listen and observe more than usual, and your sense of personal mastery is temporarily diminished; or perhaps trying to learn to play a musical instrument or learn a new language.

Travel. Visiting foreign places can have an immediate effect on your empathy and your understanding of others. It’s no accident that many writers—from the English romantic poet Lord Byron to the modern novelist Ernest Hemingway—have used travel to fuel their understanding of the human psyche and learn about the human condition. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond appears on the surface to be a study of nature, but it is in many ways the author’s reflections on the civilization he left behind in Concord, Massachusetts. When you leave the cocooned existence you call your home, you are suddenly exposed to a raft of new sights, smells, tastes, points of view, and sufferings.

Accept occasional failures or setbacks, and learn from them. Recent research into the careers of “extraordinary performers” has revealed the importance of failure as a personal motivator. Look no further than the lawyer Abraham Lincoln for an example of this: before he became the sixteenth American president at age 52, Lincoln had endured more failures than most people could ever tolerate, including several family deaths and repeatedly unsuccessful bids for elected office.

Gain an understanding of your own basic strengths, weaknesses, and personality type. Some people intuitively understand their own emotional make-up, personal biases, and attitudes, but many of us don’t—or we fool ourselves into thinking we do. Undergoing a standard personality assessment such as Myers-Briggs can be extremely helpful to professionals.

Stop labeling and stereotyping others

Stereotyping is a judgment that we make: our understanding of what someone says is heavily influenced by that person’s job title, gender, race, or perhaps some other factor. A research study, for example, showed that African-American cardiac patients are poorly diagnosed by doctors compared to white patients. The same is true for women: research has shown that their complaints or descriptions of symptoms, compared to those of male patients, are less likely to be taken seriously by male physicians. The more you can be aware of your biases and your tendencies to stereotype people, the more deeply you can empathize and listen.

In my next post, I’ll describe four more stategies for enhancing your ability to empathize.

What experiences have made you a more empathetic person?

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