If you’ve heard the word ‘empathy’ popping out here and there, it’s no coincidence. It seems that more and more people are naturally unlocking their empathetic abilities as time goes by.
What is empathy? Empathy is the ability to feel what the other person is feeling, and recognize and accept that feeling. It’s the ability to step into their shoes and walk a mile, thus drawing conclusions on why they behave and feel the way they do.
Empathetic people understand that no two minds are the same, and that there’s no set pattern on how emotions can be triggered, but that they are there in every situation. And if you thought that these people are meek and vulnerable, you will be surprised to find that they are much more courageous than many.
While empathy was just part of common talk, now even science has started delving deep into its properties and its validity, discovering more as they dive deeper. In fact, neuroscientists have discovered a specific part of the brain responsible for empathy.
The supramarginal gyrus is a region of the brain which, when functioning properly, serves to help the person to distinguish their own emotional state from that of other people, and it’s responsible for empathy and compassion.
While empathy is at its peak during childhood, it doesn’t stop evolving as we grow up. In fact, we can nurture it and use it to transform our lives in a very positive direction. Empathy helps you to gain a better understanding of the world around you, and it opens up a whole new dimension of thinking.
To learn how to nurture this gift, looking at what makes an empathetic person is crucial.
Here are 6 habits that highly empathetic people have in common:
1. Cultivating curiosity about others
Highly empathetic people have this insatiable curiosity about others. You will notice a highly empathetic person talking to a complete stranger sitting next to them on the bus, or at any random place for that matter.
They have stuck to the natural inquisitiveness we all had as children. Not really examining others, but rather being the interested inquirers, these people have managed to resist society’s idea that curiosity is unnecessary when all the answers have already been found.
In fact, when you get to talk to someone you don’t know, you’ll see that every person is a completely new universe to discover, and that the beauty of it all is that you get to discover it first-hand.
The purpose of getting to meet others outside your ‘world’ is to expand your potentials as a human being, socially speaking. It offers a gateway of new worldviews and opinions that may challenge some outdated attitudes that may be lurking beyond your awareness.
Not only does curiosity expand our empathy, it also offers a cure to the chronic loneliness which affects one in three Americans.
- Challenging prejudices and discovering commonalities
Prejudices are the worst obstacle that there can be when it comes to embracing your empathetic ability. And really, is there so much to prejudice as you may think there is? Behind the label you are to put on a person lies an individual with lots of qualities.
Prejudices are natural for every mind. However, highly empathetic people like to challenge theirs, by looking into what they share in common with people rather than what divides them.
Differences make us unique, and commonalities bring us closer together. And this knowledge is something highly empathetic people cherish with all their heart. This way not only do they come closer to people, but also learn of new values that make them bigger than they were.
The key is understanding that prejudices are just a mindset that has nothing to do with the actual person they are targeted against. Whatever their behavior, and no matter how much they seem to fit into the frame, the empathetic person will recognize how they got there and what lies at the core of their nature, which is beautiful.
- Trying other people’s lives
If you thought that ice climbing and hand gliding are extreme sports, then you should try experiential empathy. You may have not met this term before, but you certainly have heard of great people who have done this.
One such example is George Orwell, who, after several years of being a colonial police officer in British Burma, decided to see what life looked like living on the social margins. For that, he dressed up as a tramp and went to live on the streets of East London.
His life with beggars and vagabonds opened up a whole new window of understanding he was never aware of. Not only did he realize that homeless people are not “drunken scoundrels”, but he even made new friends and wrote a book about it – Down and Out in Paris and London.
His experience showed him that empathy doesn’t only make you good – it’s good for you as well. Do you know people who like to try out different kinds of lifestyles?
Highly empathetic people often consider and practice this kind of life. You might notice them sneaking into services from different religions, just for the experience; travelling to underdeveloped countries and spending time there, living the lifestyle of the people there; doing things that don’t really ‘fit’ into their lifestyle; you name it.
These experiences are the best way to learn about others and understand something which was far from tangible.
- Listening hard – and opening up
In conversations, highly empathetic people listen to more than just words. They are aware of what’s going on within, the feelings and the intensity of the thoughts that unfold, while the conversation flows.
They direct their complete attention and awareness to the process of communicating with the other person, to such an extent that they understand the underlying processes, the emotions, and the needs that created the communication in the first place.
And they don’t stop there, as listening is never enough. Highly empathetic people like to open up, and reveal their vulnerabilities. In order to create this strong empathetic bond, it’s crucial to open up completely to the person you’re talking to.
This kind of openness and awareness is what allows empaths to truly connect to others and achieve an honest and a worthwhile communication with others. This way, they not only allow others to feel completely free to express themselves, but they also allow themselves to be completely honest toward themselves in the first place.
- Inspiring mass action and social change
Only through empathy can great changes be made. And highly empathetic people tend to inspire others to be as empathetic and follow their footsteps. Empathy can affect the masses and create movements like no other thing can.
You will see empathetic people marching forward to help the downtrodden and marginalized fight their way against the current of prejudice and exploitation. Empathetic people choose to stand on the side of those feeling unjustly singled out and mistreated.
It’s because they understand their struggle and the devastating emotions that they endure because of those who couldn’t care less. And empathy is contagious. Soon, many people join the fight and together change the world for the better.
- Developing an ambitious imagination
Empathizing with the ‘usual suspects’, i.e. the marginalized, those who are suffering, is what many would naturally do. But how often have you considered the emotional states of those who have caused the turmoil?
Highly empathetic people understand that empathy should be universal and should be directed toward everyone, no matter their status. This includes the adversaries too. They are people too, although misled by far, but with feelings and struggles.
In fact, the empathetic person will understand that no evil comes by free choice, and that at the core is a vulnerable individual who doesn’t know how to do better. This way of empathizing is a way of developing social tolerance that can lead to profound changes.
A beautiful example is Gandhi’s way of handling the conflicting emotions regarding the conflicts between the Hindus and Muslims, declaring “Yes I am, I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew.”
As Roman Krznaric says, the 20th century was the age of introspection, where the best way to understanding ourselves was through looking inside ourselves. The 21st century should become the age of outrospection – the age of empathy.
Feature image by David Curtis