This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
Empathy — or understanding the thoughts and feelings of the people around us — is one of the most important and most trying parts of being social creatures. But what exactly is empathy? And crucially, can we have more?
Stanford psychology professor Jamil Zaki PhD, director of the Social Neuroscience Laboratory there, studies these very questions. In a TEDxMarin talk, he says that human empathy is actually a skill that can be developed rather than a fixed trait. “Empathy is a simple word for a complex idea,” he explains. “Research psychologists understand empathy as an umbrella terms for multiple ways that we respond to other people’s emotions.”
Why is empathy so important? Some of the reasons are more obvious: “It inspires us to help family members, friends, and strangers,” says Dr. Zaki. “It helps us see past differences and allows us to see others who are of a different race or a generation or ideology from our own, without the lens of stereotyping, prejudice, or bias.”
But he also believes it’s not just others that benefit from empathy — so does the person feeling it. “People who experience empathy also tend to be less stressed and depressed, more satisfied with their lives, happier in their relationships, and more successful at work,” he says.
Dr. Zaki distinguishes between three types of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and empathic concern or compassion. To unpack these types, imagine that you’re having lunch with a friend when they get a phone call. You don’t know who they’re talking to, but at some point, your friend starts to cry.
“As you see your friend break down, you might start to feel lousy yourself,” Dr. Zaki says. “Taking on their feelings — which we’d call emotional empathy — is that vicarious sharing of what someone else is going through. You also might try to figure out what they’re feeling and why, and that’s what we’d call cognitive empathy. And if you’re a good friend, you probably care about what they’re going through and wish for them to feel better, and we’d call that empathic concern or compassion.”
Of course, empathy is not always possible nor is it always the wisest response. Dr. Zaki is quick to point out that we do not owe anyone our empathy. If you find yourself unable to empathize with a person or people who actively seek to destroy or disparage the group you’re in, for example, it’s not a failure. He says, too, that “empathy can run counter to justice and can sometimes give us tunnel vision, in wanting to help some people over others.” The empathy you have for a good friend may convince you that they should be allowed to jump the line for a COVID vaccine ahead of someone who actually needs it more.
Still, Dr. Zaki believes that we all have a responsibility to cultivate empathy in “the same way that we try to take care of our bodies or of our mental health,” he explains. “I think of building empathy as a way to take care of our social health.” Through his introductory seminar at Stanford on empathy (and from where the below exercises are from) and in his book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, he helps people train to become more empathic.
Here, he lays out five exercises to help build your empathy:
Exercise #1: Strengthen your internal resources
For this exercise, think about something you’re struggling with and how it makes you feel. Then imagine a friend coming to you with that same problem and how you’d respond to them. Doing this can highlight the chasm between the kindness we give to the people in our lives and the kindness (or lack of) that we show ourselves. You’ll probably find a significant difference in how you’d treat your friend — most likely with patience, generosity and forgivness — versus how you’d react to yourself — perhaps with blame, harshness and self-criticism. High-achieving people like Dr. Zaki’s students, he says, often struggle to do this exercise.
What does this have to do with empathy? “Empathy has to start at home,” points out Dr. Zaki. “You can’t just give of yourself emotionally until there’s nothing left.” By building self-compassion, we are increasing our capacity for empathy.
Exercise #2: Feeling spent? Spend kindness on others
At some point in your day, especially when you’re stressed or feel like you don’t have any spare bandwidth, spend in some small way — whether it’s in time, energy or money — on someone in your life. Send a text message of support to someone who’s having a hard time. When you’re running errands, pick up your partner’s favorite coffee. Carry an older neighbor’s groceries upstairs. “Building empathy isn’t necessarily about donating half of your salary to charity. It’s about the little things that we do each day,” says Dr. Zaki. “It’s about habits of mind.”
In an attempt to conserve energy for ourselves, we tend to turn inwards when under pressure. While it may seem counterintuitive, Dr. Zaki has seen that performing these tiny acts — especially at moments when we feel like we can’t — can be energizing and enlivening. “Students are happily surprised to find that when they give to others, they don’t end up depleting themselves,” he says. “Happiness and well-being are not a zero-sum situation.”
Exercise #3: Disagree without debating
Have a conversation with someone you disagree with. But rather than debating or discussing the contentious issue, share your story of how you came to form your opinion and then listen to how they arrived at theirs.
This is likely to be the most uncomfortable of the exercises, but it’s worth doing given our current social climate in which a person’s ideology can be equated with their personality.
Note: Do not do this exercise with someone who harms or denigrates you or the group you belong to.
This exercise is based on what’s called “deep canvassing,” a strategy that’s used by some activists where they have 10-15-minute, two-way, emotionally-engaged conversations with the people they’re trying to persuade. Although deep canvassing has the intention of trying to change someone else’s mind, that’s not the aim of doing this exercise. Its point is to show us that it’s possible to disagree with another person without disliking them or seeing them as the enemy. “Empathy does not mean condoning — but it can mean understanding,” says Dr. Zaki. When his students do this exercise, he reports, “They’re often surprised at how respectful and human conversation across difference can be.”
Exercise #4: Use technology to connect, not just to click and comment
For this exercise, think of how you currently use your phone and rethink how you might use it differently. “Try to be intentional about technology as a medium in which human connection can exist and which you can try to pursue that connection,” says Dr. Zaki.
Many of us pick up our phones only to look up an hour later to realize we’ve spent the time doing a whole lot of aimless scrolling and clicking and not much else. For a few days, do an internal audit each time you catch yourself looking up from your phone. Take notice of how you feel, what (if anything) you’ve gained, and what you’ve retained. By asking yourself basic questions — “What am I thinking? Is this what I want to be doing? What do I feel right now?” — you have the chance to look at its impact on you and your well-being.
This exercise is not designed to build empathy itself but rather to help us bring kindness and humanity to the online platforms where we spend much of our time. When you can, try to use your digital interactions as a chance to better connect with others. This could mean having more real-time interactions and conversations. Instead of just leaving an emoji on a friend’s Instagram post, why not directly text or call them? “The worst thing you can do for your sense of human connection,” Zaki says, “Is to just lurk on various platforms and let anger and other negative feelings seep into you like a young Darth Vader.”
Exercise #5: Praise empathy in others
Just like we’re conditioned to compliment other people on a great style choice or work accomplishment, let’s make it a habit to shout out empathic behavior when we see it, says Dr. Zaki. For this exercise, take a moment in your meetings — whether online or in person — to recognize the people on your team whenever they help others achieve their goals. “A lot of our attention tends to go towards the loudest voices, which are not necessarily the kindest voices,” he points out. “When we notice the good around us, it balances our attention a little bit.”
Feel free to do these exercises in any order you’d like and for as long as you’d like. In fact, why not turn them into a lifelong practice? The more that we can cultivate our own empathy and encourage it in others, the more we’ll be contributing to an overall culture of kindness. “There’s a fair amount of research on kindness contagion — the idea that when we see it, we’re more likely to engage in it ourselves,” adds Dr. Zaki. “By calling kindness out, we’re more likely to make it magnetic through that social force.”
Watch his TEDxMarin Talk now: