The Six Habits of Highly Empathic People

February 16, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

At lunchtime I chaired an event with Roman Krznaric that will soon be available to download from our website. In light of the event’s intriguing title, and my current oppressive workload, I wanted just to list the six habits(from scribbles of shifting slides, so not verbatim), and add a little thoughtlet on each of them.

1) Develop curiosity about strangers

Who are all these people? Roman mentioned that people inclined towards empathy typically look for things that bring people together, rather than those that separate them. The next time you see a stranger who looks like a radically different creature, consider the abundance of things you must have in common, by virtue of being human, but also allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised by the differences.

2) Move beyond limiting assumptions

As my mother in law once told me: When we assume, we make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.

3) Play ‘extreme sports’ i.e. take time to experience the lives of others.

As my mother in law once told me: When we assume, we make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.

Roman gave examples of people who had taken extreme measures to learn what it might feel like to be others. Once recent example, close to my heart, is what it feels like to be diabetic.

Another, not mentioned by Roman, was the eighties film ‘Soul Man‘ in which a white student takes tanning pills in order to become eligible for a scholarship reserved for Black students to get into Harvard Law School. There is a great scene near the end, when the whole charade has blown up in which the (Black) professor says: “You have learnt something I could never teach you. You have learnt what it is like to be Black.” To which the chastened student says: “No sir, I don’t really know what it’s like. If I didn’t like it, I could always get out.” To which the professor says: “You have learnt a great deal more than I thought.” I watched that scene over and over when I was about 12 and it made a big impression on me.

4) Cultivate the art of conversation

It’s not completely straightforward to talk to people you don’t know, but I agree that there is an ‘art’ to it…a way of creating a shared adventure without being too intrusive. As with most forms of expertise, practice is no doubt important- the more we do it, the easier it becomes.

5) Inspire Mass Action and Social Change

Roman seemed to be saying that empathy is no mere afterthought, but something that should be at the heart of our social, economic and political decisions. One example he used was climate change, where empathy with those more immediately and directly effected was urgently needed.

6) Be Ambitiously Imaginative.

I forget the heart of this point, but I think it was about not limiting yourself to cultivating empathy in safe and predictable ways e.g. with neighbours or colleagues, but rather to challenge yourself and try to do it with people who are radically different and whom you may not particularly like.

It was a great talk, and well worth a listen when it becomes available.

Comments

  • http://twitter.com/murphymania Murphymania

    Looking forward to seeing it! If the world can learn to be more empathic we could stop squabbling and get on with some real work…

  • Pingback: Ode to empathy — Financial Press