6 ways to cultivate more empathy in your life and in the world
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We live in a world that tempts us every day to be less empathetic. Whether it's the conflict-driven world of social media, the daily disasters we see on the news, or the victims of mental illness we see on the streets. Seeing and feeling others' pain can be overwhelming.

However, as humans we are hard-wired to be empathetic. We aren't just self-serving beings whose relationships are wholly transnational in nature. We have evolved to give without receiving, to feel for those we've never met, and to cooperate and provide mutual aid in our communities.


Roman Krznaric, Ph.D., a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London and empathy adviser to the United Nations, made a list of six ways that we can cultivate empathy to be better members of our community and planet.

Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers

Highly empathetic people are very interested in strangers. They will chat with the person behind them in line at the supermarket and crack a joke or two with the gas station teller.

But cultivating curiosity in others isn't just about small talk. Krznaric believes one of the best ways to cultivate this curiosity is to challenge yourself to have one conversation with a stranger a week. "All it requires is courage," he wrote.

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Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities

It's very easy to label other people based on their social identities, e.g. "soccer mom" or "hipster." These labels often prevent us from getting to really know them or explore our commonalities.

To cultivate an attitude of empathy, try to engage in label-free thinking, and focus on the things you share in common instead.

Habit 3: Try another person's life

Sometimes our lifestyles become so ingrained that that those who live differently than us become increasingly foreign. To break that cycle, why not try someone else's life on for a while?

"If you are religiously observant, try a 'God Swap,' attending the services of faiths different from your own, including a meeting of Humanists," Krznaric writes. "Or if you're an atheist, try attending different churches! Spend your next vacation living and volunteering in a village in a developing country."

Habit 4: Listen hard—and open up

Krznaric says there are two different traits required for being an empathetic conversationalist: radical listening and vulnerability.

"What is essential is our ability to be present to what's really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment," Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), said about radical listening.

Vulnerability involves "removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond," Krznaric writes. Whereas "empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding—an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences."

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Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change

One can increase their own empathetic abilities by supporting organizations that encourage its growth in the world. Krznaric recommends Canada's pioneering Roots of Empathy, a teaching program that has benefited over a million school kids.

We can also help sow the seeds of empathy by creating spaces in social media for it to flourish. Krznaric believes that social media can convince us to care deeply about the suffering of distant strangers.

Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination

It's important to empathize with people who we perceive as "enemies." Understanding those with whom we disagree or are in engaged in conflict with, gives us a strategic ability to help change their course or come to a compromise.

This is known as "instrumental empathy" and it can go a long way.

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Anne Hebert, a marketing writer living in Austin, TX, jokes that her closest friends think that her hobby is "low-key harassment for social good". She authors a website devoted entirely to People Doing Good Things. She's hosted a yearly canned food drive with up to 150 people stopping by to donate, resulting in hundreds of pounds of donations to take to the food bank for the past decade.

"I try to share info in a positive way that gives people hope and makes them aware of solutions or things they can do to try to make the world a little better," she said.

For now, she's encouraging people through a barrage of persistent, informative, and entertaining emails with one goal in mind: getting people to VOTE. The thing about emailing people and talking about politics, according to Hebert, is to catch their attention—which is how lice got involved.

"When my kids were in elementary school, I was class parent for a year, which meant I had to send the emails to the other parents. As I've learned over the years, a good intro will trick your audience into reading the rest of the email. In fact, another parent told me that my emails always stood out, especially the one that started: 'We need volunteers for the Valentine's Party...oh, and LICE.'"

Hebert isn't working with a specific organization. She is simply trying to motivate others to find ways to plug in to help get out the vote.

Photo by Phillip Goldsberry on Unsplash

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