As a psychologist, educator and mentor, I have
found over the years that empathy is one of the most underrated – but potent –
therapeutic interventions used in helping professions. It is one of the most
powerful antidotes to the helplessness, hopelessness and despair that many
In this age of evidence-based therapy approaches, it can seem anachronistic to focus on the relationship between therapist and client as one of, or perhaps the, most important factors that contributes to healing.
Science backs this up. There is an extensive and growing body of research on the function of mirror neurons, the biology of attachment, and the connection between emotions and cognitions, which points to the essential value of relating to another human being genuinely, authentically and empathically. We all have the human need to RELATE and to be RELATED TO.
Demonstrating empathy is a skill that many therapists have honed through their education and training. But empathy is a basic part of caring relationships that all of us have the capacity to give and receive. Recognizing and practicing everyday empathy is a simple way to deepen our connection to others, to ourselves and to our higher purpose. Empathy is what makes others more human to us and even makes us more human to ourselves.
When you try to see yourself in your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, passing strangers or other random encounters you help to counter some of our more dangerous human instincts, such as aggression, violence and self-destruction. These negative instincts are often triggered by the need to protect ourselves from others we perceive as dangerous because they are foreign, unlike us or outside of our tribe or group. The problem is these perceptions are often inaccurate and stem from cognitive biases and other psychological distortions. Empathy is one step toward being able to blur the line between us and them and envision our common experiences and fate.
Everyday empathy can be practiced and refined in multiple ways. This short list includes small steps we can all take to develop greater empathy for others and compassion for ourselves.
- Listening more closely in conversation and trying to understand what the other is really trying to communicate
- Being curious about another person’s experiences, not just the qualities we see on the surface (such as race, age, gender, employment, etc.)
- Being fully present with the other person – minus distractions and judgment
- Visualizing yourself in the shoes of someone else who is experiencing hardships and difficulty and stepping away from judgment about how they have responded to their circumstances
- Having compassion for yourself for your own shortcomings, failings and disappointments.
Let me know how you’ve experienced and practiced
empathy in your everyday life.