Empathy: How to Put Ourselves in Another’s Shoes?

Empathy: How to Put Ourselves in Another's Shoes?
Empathy: How to Put Ourselves in Another’s Shoes?

How be more empathetic? Empathy is, more or less unconsciously, in the daily lives of all of us. The impulse makes us smile if someone smiles, which scares us when we see a horror movie and moves us when we hear a theatrical experience. But, as defined by the American Psychological Association, it is to understand the other from their perspective; and not ours – or to experience their emotions as if they were ours.

Where does empathy come from?

In the mid-1990s, Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti (University of Parma) made an essential contribution to the understanding of empathy. By studying the neurons responsible for planning and executing movements in a group of monkeys, he discovered some neurological bases that explain it.

A group of neurons – which he came to call mirror neurons – activated when the apes made a specific movement. The same neurons also started when they observed that movement in another ape or a human. That is, a part of their brain didn’t make much of a distinction between making a move or watching someone else do it.

Later studies in humans allowed us to conclude that in the field of emotions, this happens to us: when we see someone laughing, being afraid, crying, being embarrassed, our brain activates the part of the circuits corresponding to these emotions merely by observing them. And that’s why we feel them.

The difference between empathy and sympathy

Sympathy refers to an affinity and ease of contact with the other that, as a rule, is associated with similarities or commonalities. Empathy, on the other hand, involves understanding the other regardless of differences, as we feel more or less automatically what others think.

There are, of course, other factors to be taken into account; it is easier to empathize with those who are closer emotionally. With emotions that reflect an experience we have already experienced and which is more intensely demonstrated. Thus, there is talk of two types of empathy: one more based on emotions, which we feel more or less automatically, another that goes through a deliberate cognitive effort to ‘put on the other’s shoes.’

How can we be more empathetic?

Empathy is, in part, innate to us. It varies according to genetic factors, neurodevelopment, temperament, and our life experience. But several studies show that we can develop this ability as early as adulthood. Roman Krznaric, an empathy consultant for the United Nations and Oxfam, shares the habits of very empathetic people in an article in the University of California’s Greater Good magazine.

1) Cultivate curiosity about strangers

So an empathic people have an insatiable curiosity about strangers. Interest expands empathy: talking to people outside our usual social circle allows us to find very different views. Cultivating curiosity requires more than superficial conversation: it involves understanding the world through the other person’s head. Embrace the challenge of talking to at least one stranger every week.

2) Challenge prejudices

We all have preconceptions and use labels to define others. However, very empathetic people challenge their prejudices, looking for what they have in common rather than focusing on what separates them. Try to identify your commonalities with others, however different they may be from you.

3) Experience someone else’s life

Experiential empathy gives the most results. It is the one that goes not only for ‘putting on the shoes of the other,’ but also for walking with them. We can exercise it by going to a church of a different religion than ours, volunteering in a developing country, or with a marginalized group of people. As philosopher John Dewey argued, “all genuine education takes place through experience.”

4) Listen and be open to emotions

There are two necessary traits to be an empathic conversationalist. One is to truly listen to the other person, trying to understand their emotional state and needs. The other is allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, removing our social masks, and showing our feelings so that the other can feel if they are listening.

5) Aspire to social change

Highly empathetic people know that empathy can generate mass phenomena that bring about social change. For example; the overwhelming public response to the 2004 Asian tsunami arose out of concern for the victims. Try, for example; using social networks not only to disseminate information but also as an empathic connection with those in need.

6) Exercise tolerance

One of the traits of very empathetic people is that they direct empathy to those suffering or belonging to socially disadvantaged groups. So we also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share and who have different convictions. Empathy for opponents is a path to social tolerance.

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