Exercise: how to improve your empathy

July 3, 2011 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Nature, Tips

Here is a mental exercise I like and find effective in learning to empathize and understand people better. It costs nothing and requires no preparation, but it can be personally challenging, but it develops you as a person.

The exercise is to see how diverse behavior in others you can explain without relying on saying someone else has different motivations than you do. The more you can explain their behavior, the more you have in common with them, the more you understand them, the more connected you will feel, and the better your life.

It can be difficult at first when trying it on people who behave differently than you ever would have but gets easier with practice. Eventually you internalize the skills and instead of rationally explaining others’ behavior you subconsciously understand their motivations and emotions, which is empathy.

Of course, people do have differences that lead to different motivations, emotions, and behavior — men differ from women, young differ from old, and so on. Those differences make for interesting applications of this exercise, but they aren’t the most challenging ones.

The most challenging ones are when you try it on people who don’t have those differences but behave contrary to your greatest values anyway. They force you to expand the domain of what you think about — loosely speaking, to expand your mind. You also learn to understand without feeling that means you agree with someone.

Let’s start with a simple example you probably already do. If you want to criticize someone’s performance, say someone who reports to you at work, it helps if you understand why they performed the way they did. If you understand their motivation, you will be less likely to hurt them and more able to influence them.

Let’s take an extreme example. Imagine you feel strongly that abortion should be legal. You would then probably have a set of beliefs connected with that belief. You would probably feel someone who feels abortion should be illegal is crazy, perhaps violent, and misogynist. That’s explaining someone’s behavior by saying they have different motivations, which I try not to do.

This exercise would have you explain their behavior while holding that they are as rational, peaceful, and respectful as you. How can you do that? Well, you can try to understand their beliefs, in this case that human life begins at conception. You may not agree, but the exercise has you imagine the consequences of that belief. The best way to do it is to try temporarily believing it. You don’t have to act on it or agree with the belief, just to examine what happens when you believe it. You know you’ve completed the exercise when you feel their behavior makes sense based on those beliefs.

Such applications of this exercise can be tremendously challenging. You still have all the tools to do them. They can feel immoral, unethical, and objectionable, until you realize no one is going to be hurt. It’s just a mental exercise. Then you do it and suddenly you see the world differently, you understand someone you never thought you would have, you understand yourself better, and you learn to communicate and influence others in ways you never thought you could have.

Again, trying to think like people you find repugnant, disgusting, evil, or the like can feel like it will be horrible, but I assure you it’s not. Experimenting with thinking differently does not support them, imply you agree with them, or lead to any behavior you don’t want.

Though I called the abortion thoughts example extreme, everyone has beliefs they hold just as strongly for which other people’s behavior and beliefs seem just as repugnant, including you. I don’t start with cases involving such intense or painful emotions. I start with less intense and less painful ones.

The book Freakonomics is like an extended version of the exercise. It stated what this exercise teaches well:

People are people and they respond to incentives.

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