The Recipe for Building Empathy

We can set a strong foundation to build our empathic abilities.

Posted Jun 05, 2019

Source: Daria-Yakovleva/Pixabay

When I tell people I study empathy, the first reaction is often “We could use more of that in this world!” And then the conversation shifts, and I am asked, “How do we teach and learn empathy?” These responses tell me that people sense the importance of empathy but are not sure of how we can get there. Asking for the recipe for empathy is a simple question, but the answer is more complex.

As I have noted in previous blogs, there are seven components to full engagement in interpersonal and social empathy. In short, the full array of empathy includes our ability to share the feelings and experiences of others both unconsciously and consciously, know that it is the other person’s feelings and experiences, not our own, not become overwhelmed with emotions while doing this, strive to understand the context of the other person’s life now and as a result of history, and imagine yourself in their place without thinking “this is what I would do” but instead stepping outside yourself and seeing and experiencing the world as the other person does.

This is not easy. With all these tasks, empathy is complex and takes time and practice to be a significant part of our lives. But there are some foundational things that we know help us connect with others and help others to better understand us. Two important ingredients to set the stage for empathy are feeling safe and feeling in control.

Ingredient 1 – Feeling Safe

Having a sense of security, that we are not in danger, allows us to not fear others. When we are curious about others rather than afraid of them, we are open to learning more about their lives. What makes this difficult is that we are programmed for survival to be cautious about the unknown, and unconsciously, that can include others who do not look like us. But thanks to greater experience with different people and learning, we can use our brains to properly assess whether another person really is a danger to us. That cognitive process helps to build empathy.

Ingredient 2 – Feeling in Control

This is not about controlling others; it is about feeling in control of your own life. It is a sense of predictability. When our lives are predictable, we have lower stress. Knowing that our environment is predictable makes us feel comfortable and safe. This also helps us to achieve self-actualization, which is the chance to realize your full potential. Thus, control is a big part of feeling safe.

Why We Need to Feel Safe and in Control to Have Empathy

When we feel safe and in control, we are not afraid unnecessarily. Fear blocks empathy. Of course, it is good to feel fear when there really is a threat, but it is a waste of energy and emotion to be afraid of the unknown or something we imagine. Fear puts us on reactive alert. When we are reactive without thinking, we cannot engage in the cognitive process that allows us to be empathic. Do you know the saying “blinded by fear"? That is exactly what can happen, and so we do not even see others. 

While there are skills we need to develop in order to successfully engage in empathy, we can’t get there if we do not first feel we are safe and in control. Those feelings are the foundation. Once we have that sense of security, we can explore the feelings and experiences of others.