How to use your empathy superpower to heal the world

How to use your empathy superpower to heal the world

Did you know that you have a superpower? Yes, you. It may not be as sexy as flying or superspeed, but it’s much more practical because you can use it without creating a secret identity or landing on the front page of the newspaper.

Would you like to know how you can use it to heal the world?

Then read on…

THE WORLD NEEDS YOU

Right now, the world is hurting, more than it has been in many years. Countries like the U.S. and England, global leaders looked to by the rest of the world to set the tone, are deeply divided over political issues. First Brexit, then the election of Donald Trump, shocked the world.

But these events did not occur in a vacuum. The use of populist rhetoric was successful because a large portion of the population was either angry or hurting, or both. They felt neglected, disparaged, misunderstood. Many were unemployed, underemployed, or felt that their jobs were under threat. In Britain, these people put their hope in Brexit. In America, it was Donald Trump.

Why? Because Trump listened to them. He gave them hope.

While many in the U.S. and around the world heard Trump’s words and reacted with horror, these people heard hope. They heard a chance that things would get better. They voted for Trump. And now their fellow voters, fellow citizens, and many in the rest of the world, blame them for giving America and the world a Trump presidency.

These people have been labeled as racist, homophobic, stupid, uneducated, xenophobic, and many other horrible things. Whether or not some voters fit these labels is beside the point. Everyone has their own unique history and perspective, their own reasons for casting a vote one way or the other, and the right to make their own choices. Using negative labels on anyone is unproductive and serves to widen the fracture that is forming between people with different viewpoints around the world.

WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?

There is a way to look at the world that doesn’t require judging everyone who disagrees with you as wrong. You have to open your mind a little, be flexible. Opinions are not facts. Maybe that sounds like common sense to you, but it’s easy to forget sometimes, especially in the heat of an argument.

Do you read fiction? When you read a story, you allow yourself to be transported into the minds of characters who are often very different from you. Reading a story places you into their shoes, lets you see the world from their point of view and feel what they feel. This is called empathy, and science has shown that reading fiction increases it.

WHAT IS EMPATHY?

Empathy is the ability to both understand and share someone’s feelings.

Here is an animated video by Brené Brown that explains empathy perfectly.

Empathy makes you a better listener. That doesn’t mean that it improves your ability to focus, digest, or even comprehend what you hear. Empathy makes you a good listener because you can use it to transport yourself into someone else’s point of view, just like you do when you read fiction. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is great because you can understand what they are going through. And by understanding, and letting them know that you understand, you can make them feel better.

That’s why empathy is a superpower.

You can reduce or eliminate people’s anger, their sadness, their pain, their feeling of being misunderstood. Because when they talk to you they are not misunderstood!

HOW TO RECHARGE OR INCREASE YOUR EMPATHY

If you haven’t been feeling very empathetic recently, don’t worry. There are plenty of things you can do to recharge or increase your empathy level. First of all, you can reduce the things that have a negative effect on empathy.

People who are highly stressed often become more self-focused, making them less likely to care about the problems of others. So focus more on positive thoughts, take time to smell the flowers, and take a breather whenever you feel overwhelmed by responsibilities!

Isolation is another big empathy-destroyer. Your ability to empathize improves when you use it. When you are not around people, you aren’t using your empathy enough. Social interactions over the internet don’t count.

Just look at the message boards or comment sections of many popular websites to see lack of empathy in action. People say astoundingly hurtful things over the internet that in most cases they would never say to someone if they were looking them in the eye and could actually see how it affected that person.

So get out there and socialize!

Next, you can start increasing the types of activities that have a positive effect on empathy. The number one is, of course, socializing. Laugh, cry, share, make memories, have deep conversations, connect!

But if you’re not an extrovert, you can only take so much socializing. That’s where reading comes in! Read lots of good fiction, get into the stories, care about the characters. Literary fiction is even better for increasing empathy than genre fiction, probably because the stories tend to be more character focused and the emotions of the characters are left more open to the reader to interpret. But genre fiction works too!

Another way to increase your empathy is by listening to classical music. This works because classical music stimulates our brains to not only feel emotions, but to try to understand what emotions the composers were trying to convey.

When you’ve charged up your empathy, it’s time to take the next step.

ADVANCED EMPATHY: UNDERSTANDING PEOPLE YOU DON’T LIKE

Ok, so you find it pretty easy to empathize with people you like and agree with. But what about the people you don’t? After all, if everyone liked and agreed with each other, the world wouldn’t need healing.

Buckle your seat belt, because the ride’s about to get a bit bumpier. I’m going to walk you through a really great empathy-building exercise. But you will have to get creative, ok? It’s time to try your hand at being a writer.

I want you to go people watching. Or rather eavesdropping. Find a place where there are lots of people hanging out, having conversations. Find a good spot, sit down, pretend to be occupied with reading a book or listening to your iPod or whatever. Now listen to the people around you. Wait until you find someone that rubs you the wrong way. Their opinions are offensive to you. You just can’t understand the way this person thinks.

That’s your person. Now comes the hard part. I want you to humanize this person. Invent a story for them. Give them a reason, an understandable motivation for holding such opinions.

I never said it would be easy!

Are you seeing the point of this exercise? It’s about putting yourself into the shoes of someone whom you can’t imagine ever agreeing with and trying to understand them.

Of course, the real story is not going to be what you’ve imagined. Maybe the real story is much harder to empathize with. Or maybe it affects you even more. It doesn’t matter.

You’re developing a skill, a very useful and important one.

You can use this all the time. When someone does something that bothers you, the first thing you can do is try to come up with valid reasons to explain their behavior. Reasons that you can understand and forgive. It’s rare that you will manage to come up with the real reason, but that doesn’t matter.

So if a friend shows up an hour late for a meeting, don’t be angry. Assume they got stuck in a traffic jam or their car broke down or an important and unexpected responsibility came up or their child suddenly threw up all over the floor as they were about to leave the house.

Why would you assume the meeting isn’t important to them? They are your friend. Expect the best from people.That ‘s called giving someone the benefit of the doubt. And you will be glad the next time someone does it for you.

MOTIVATION MATTERS

One of the amazing things about great fiction writers is their ability to humanize even the most despicable of characters and make us empathize with them. One of the ways that writers do this is by crafting the right motivations. The reasons that people do things are important.

Have you ever been really angry at someone because they did something just, just… just awful! And grrrrr, how could they!

But then you calmed down enough to let them explain and you found out that actually they were trying to do something really nice and it just went wrong or you misunderstood somehow. Well, after that you couldn’t be angry any more, right? Because you understood their motivation. You knew their story.

Let’s make up a rather extreme example just for illustrative purposes.

You are driving your pickup truck down the street, minding your own business, humming happily to yourself, when suddenly a man jumps into the road directly in front of you.  You slam on your brakes and swerve off the road, nearly crashing your truck into a lamppost. What the hell!?! This idiot wasn’t paying attention and almost got you and themselves killed!!

You’re about to give this man a real piece of your mind…when you see the small child playing in the road 10 meters behind him. Boom, anger gone! This man is a hero. You would have run the child over and killed it!

Are you beginning to get the picture? Like I said, that is an extreme example, but it’s clear that the reasons why people do things matter.

 PUTTING YOUR EMPATHY SUPERPOWER INTO ACTION

If you are not yet confident you can use your superpower proficiently, then start small. Go and listen. Listen at the water cooler, at the coffee shop, at the ball game. Keep your mouth shut. Be a voyeur. Listen to other people’s conversations and try to imagine what it’s like to be them.

When you feel a bit more confident, you can start to engage people. But here’s the important part: don’t state your own opinions about anything unless asked. Just listen intently, hang on every word, ask for more details. Be genuine. Care. It’s not about you. It’s about them. And when you start to understand their position, say so!

They will love you for it. Everyone wants to be understood. You might make unexpected friends.

It doesn’t need to be about politics. You can engage people this way about any topic. You know that guy Bob? The one in the office you can’t stand because he’s always going on about how dogs are the spawn of Satan? He was bitten by a Doberman when he was two years old, and never got over the trauma. You didn’t know that because you never asked him why he hates dogs. You just avoided him because it’s obvious that no compassionate and reasonable person could hold such an opinion.

Go listen to him. Maybe one day he’ll ask you why you love dogs. And he might actually be interested, because he knows you are someone who understands him, and that makes your opinions valid.

Maybe you don’t know Bob the dog hater. Maybe for you it’s Timothy, the one who’s full of conspiracy theories about 9/11. Or Susan, the one who’s crying about another relationship mishap every other day. She’s shallow, annoying, and brings all her problems on herself. Maybe so, but have you ever tried to find out why?

CRAZY AUNT JUDITH

I know what you’re thinking. But what about your aunt Judith, the crazy one that’s always predicting the second coming of Christ?

She keeps telling you that you need Jesus in your life or you’re going to hell because you live of a life of sin and haven’t repented for it. God, you can’t stand her. You make nice with her at Christmas and Thanksgiving, but whenever religion comes up, you duck your head and grind your teeth. Empathize with her? Hell no.

Guess what? She cares about you. She really believes the stuff she’s saying. She believes her (and your) life on earth is just a drop in the ocean of an eternity which will be spent in Heaven or Hell. For her, it’s a matter of your immortal soul. She’s not winning any converts with her rants, but she means well.

What you don’t know is that she needs religion to make sense of the world. She needs an anchor, something to keep her grounded so she won’t get lost in the chaos of the world. And she needs to believe in an eternal future because she doesn’t see a way to achieve true happiness in the present. It’s her hope. She will cling to it more strongly than life itself because it gives her a reason to get up in the morning. She won’t tell you that because she’s not even aware of it herself. But you’ll hear it between the lines if you listen.

Maybe she’ll start to realize that you aren’t like the rest of the hellbound. You are someone who understands her, even though you don’t share her opinions. And maybe, just maybe, some of her more extreme views will start to soften. I’ve seen stranger things.

Of course, there are some people you may never be able to reach with empathy. Don’t waste your effort trying to connect with people who are clearly uninterested. Listen to the ones that want to be heard. There are plenty.

HOW TO GET BETTER AT UNDERSTANDING OPPOSING POINTS OF VIEW

You can start by diversifying your information sources to increase your exposure to opinions you disagree with. If you surround yourself with like-minded people and like-minded information sources, your own opinions will be constantly reinforced. This makes it more and more difficult to relate to or understand other points of view.

Broaden your social circles, or expand the range of conversations with the contacts you already have. Start talking about subjects you don’t agree on. Don’t seek out arguments, just listen to their opinions. The more often you hear opinions you disagree with from people that you like and respect, the easier it will be to start seeing those opinions as valid or at least understandable. After all, your friends are good and reasonable people, right?

NOW GO FORTH AND HEAL THE WORLD

Listen, ask questions, hear people’s stories, find out why they believe what they believe. Listening leads to understanding, understanding leads to empathy, and empathy leads to healing. So let’s do our part, dear readers, let’s listen to our friends and neighbors and relatives, even our enemies, and find out what motivates them to see the world differently than we do.

Our job is not to evangelize or convert others to our point of view. Our job is to understand. To empathize. That is how we can help fix the divide that currently faces us, that threatens to damage families, friendships, relationships, and alliances.

It is not necessary to agree with those who feel differently from us, but we can still listen to their grievances, their pain and anger and dissatisfaction, and we can try to understand. And empathize.

And then let’s do the hardest and noblest thing: keep our mouths shut and not try to convince them that they are wrong.


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2 thoughts on “How to use your empathy superpower to heal the world

  1. Great article on trying to understand those we do not agree with.

    But is that really empathy?
    To empathise is to literally feel another’s pain
    This feels like manipulation, pretending to commiserate while pushing your personal agenda, AKA a marketing scheme.

    It’s one thing to care, heal and genuinely try to understand the other’s POV but this feels deceptive patronising ultimately wrong, I don’t think this can even be categorised as sympathy, more like a neo colonisation of thought, the scientific intelligentsia or the Vatican or Ulemah, dictating terms ina farcically caring manner.

    Personally, I think Free speech trumps fake empathy
    “I wholly disagree with what you are saying but will defend to the death your right to say it” – Voltaire
    -www.facebook.com/NadiaWriterSiddiqi

    • Hi Nadia,
      Thanks so much for an interesting and thoughtful comment. You make some good points.

      I agree that fake empathy is not a good thing. ‘Pretending to commiserate’ would be manipulative and deceitful, and would not help to heal the world at all.

      Empathy is often used by salesmen and marketers to push an agenda. While it is arguable whether this is fake or not (I would say it depends on the individual), I am certainly not advocating to use empathy in this way.

      To heal the world, we need to exercise true empathy. We need to empathize with others not just to understand them, but to reach out and connect with them. The point is not to sell anything, or convert anyone to your point of view. The point is to accept them as they are.

      Free speech is very important, and there is no need to give it up in the name of empathy. But empathy helps us to determine when and to what extent it is appropriate to exercise free speech.

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