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Give Your Empathy a Boost

Four tips on increasing your ability to read others minds

Whether you are a man or woman, empathy is a dying art. Life is so loud and distracting it becomes harder to sense what is going on around us. The less we are aware in the moment, the harder it is to tune into other people's feelings and intentions.

In fact, according to Sara Konrath at the University of Michigan, college students today show 40% less empathy vs. students in the 1980s and 1990s.

Yet empathy is critical to establishing healthy relationships and developing social and leadership skills.

The good news is that even though we may be losing our ability to show empathy, we still have the capacity to empathize anytime we want to.

In other words, you may forget how to have empathy. You can remember if you choose to.

The brain is naturally empathetic. You have "mirror neurons" which connect your brain like Wi-Fi with people you observe. As a protective mechanism, you automatically tune into their emotions, their movements and intentions.

When you walk down the street and someone comes your way, it's likely you will both move in the same direction even though you are trying to get out of each other's way. This is because your mirror neurons sensed the person's intentions and you "mirrored" their actions until your cognitive brain could engineer an opposing move that cleared the path.

Mirror neurons give you the capacity to "step into another's shoes." According to Dr. Keysers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, when you see a spider crawling up someone's leg, you feel a creepy sensation. Similarly, when you observe someone reach out to a friend and they are pushed away, your brain registers the sensation of rejection. When you watch your team win or a couple embrace on television, you feel their emotions as if you are there. Social emotions like guilt, shame, pride, embarrassment, disgust and lust can all be experienced by watching others.

However, if you are using your cognitive brain to think about the past, the future, or your email, you are not connecting to your emotional brain. You suppress your empathy--how your mind is reading the emotions and intentions of others. The empathy is there. You are just not paying attention.

To increase your empathy, you have to both control your wandering mind and strengthen your capacity to empathize through practice. Here's how:

  1. Be quiet, inside and out. The more you can quiet your chattering brain, the more you can hear your emotional wisdom. Meditation is a good practice. You can also tune in through stopping your activity and focusing on your breath. Keep your mind empty as long as you can as you look around you. Practice observing with a quiet mind in five-minute intervals.
  2. Fully watch as well as listen. Watch movies that tell stories full of both drama and humor. Getting absorbed in another's life story strengthens the connections between your cognitive and emotional brain. This is better done in a theater where your phone is turned off. Konrath also suggests, "...people take time out of their busy schedules and actively practice empathy each day. This means spending time each day in face-to-face, other-focused listening to others and imagining what they feel." Commit to spending 30 minutes a day watching people in meetings or social settings where you don't have to talk much.
  3. Ask yourself what you are feeling. If many of your emotions are in part a reflection of what another person is feeling, practicing "emotional awareness" on yourself will help you empathize when you are with others. This requires you teach your brain to access and label your emotional reactions. To help learn this skill, check out my Emotional Inventory where you will be asked to stop two or three times a day and pick out what emotion you are feeling from a list of possible sensations.You may also need to work on identifying where in your body your emotions appear. Where do you feel fear--in your chest, your throat, or in the back of your neck? Where do you feel anger--in your stomach, your jaw, or in your clenched fists? How about betrayal? Joy? Humiliation? Recall the last time you felt a particular emotion. Try to feel it again. Where does it show up in your body? The quicker you can identify changes in your physical reactions to situations, the easier it will be to know that you are "having an emotion."
  4. Test your instinct. If it is appropriate, when you are in conversation with someone else, tell the person what emotions you are experiencing. Ask them if there is anything that might be triggering these same emotions in them. Be patient with their response. It might take them a while before they can recognize their own emotional state. Then share with them what you think they might do next. Even if you are wrong, it will help them to begin to identify their own emotions and inclinations for action.

In truth, you are an excellent mind reader. You just need to pay attention and be willing to believe what you read. Boost your empathy to strengthen your relationships and improve your social skills.

More from Marcia Reynolds Psy.D.
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