As every day of 2020 goes by we become increasingly aware of the need to live ever more cohesive and connected lives. For so long we have existed in our own self-driven bubbles, moving from one daily drama to the next, without investing the time to focus on really connecting with those around us, on empathising with them.
Often mistaken as a skill we are born with more or less of, empathy is a natural ability we all possess to overcome the daily grind of solitary living. It is, at its core, about walking in the shoes of others and being able to have perspective. Like so many things in life however committing to practicing empathy for others will aid us in improving our ability to do so – and the benefits are well worth the effort.
Empathising with those around us doesn’t only deepen the quality of our relationships but, after two months of the pressures of being quarantined at home, it will improve our ability to heal and move forward with those we care for. To rebuild relationships and to see the world through eyes beyond our own.
So, how do we cultivate the practice of empathetic living in our everyday lives?
Here are four easy-to-commit-to steps:
Practice live listening
How often do you find yourself listening but not really taking note of what the other person is saying? Your body may have been in the same room, but your attention was elsewhere. The first key to driving deeper empathetic connection is to ensure that when you listen, you listen to truly hear. Use your whole body in this process, ensuring your body language shows that you are leaning in and interested, your eye contact remains focused and your attention is towards the speaker.
Focus on the people in your life
Today, we know that our emotional system is inextricably linked with our ability to think and process information effectively. We also know that when people feel understood, stress levels are lower and cognition and decision-making ability goes up. Understanding the perspective of another not only helps you to gain clarity and context, but it creates confidence and calm in those you are connecting with. When people feel they are heard, they feel better.
Never underestimate small gestures, they always matter
The small and the humble cannot be underestimated. Showing you care with a “thank you”, a personal call or a hand-written card (to send after lockdown) all offer a sign that you naturally understand the receiver. These tiny gestures so often mean far more than a grand gesture ever would. Whether speech, a memo or body language; in a world being reshaped by technology and a pandemic, people are affected more than ever by an authentic sense of humanity.
Inquiry drives connection. Start conversations and provoke sharing by asking questions to deepen your understanding of the people in your life who are far from you right now. Next time you are in important discussion with a friend or your partner try to focus on asking questions to better understand their answers, rather than simply reacting to the information they give you. The most empathetic of people are nearly always natural inquirers.
We can cultivate empathy throughout our lives and we can have a huge impact on ourselves and others by doing so. The days of believing that we are essentially self-interested creatures (survival of the fittest) have passed as we now see both evidence, and necessity, for us to be wired to care and driven by social cooperation and mutual aid.
Mimi Nicklin is the host of “Breakfast with Empathy” and author of “Softening the Edge” (available August 2020).