Emotional intelligence is often spoken of as a vital set of soft skills required in order to achieve success. At the forefront of these emotions is empathy. The simplest explanation I can think of to explain empathy is that it is essentially awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people. Without the ability to empathise with others, you will struggle to collaborate with others, be an effective leader, sell a product to those who need it and so on. Many mistake empathy with sympathy, but there is a key difference. Sympathy is essentially feeling for someone else. So, if a friend has a family member who is very sick, you may feel sorry for them. But empathy is going beyond this and putting yourself in their shoes. So, if you feel sympathy in the above example you may send them a text and say “hey, sorry to hear”. Whereas someone with empathy, would realise that the friend is likely spending a lot of time at hospital visiting the family member and you know they have a dog, and so you offer to look after the dog for a few weeks, as that would help them out. So, what can you do to become more empathetic?
Try something new
Those who lack empathy, often also display a lack of humility. For example, if you were an only child from a wealthy family and your parents told you how amazing you were everyday and let you win all of the board games your entire life and gave you everything you wanted, it might be hard to relate to others. Likewise, maybe you have just been amazing at everything you have ever done, as such it can be difficult to relate to those who may struggle or be going through a difficult time. By trying something new such as learning a language or an instrument, you are forced to begin again from the very bottom. I know a very right-wing person who have always complained about “immigrants not speaking our language” and then they tried to learn a new language at 30 and realised just how hard it must be for foreigners. The end result was that they actually took a course so they could then teach others to learn the language. By struggling yourself, it is a lot easier to then empathise with others.
Speak regularly with people who are different to you
The black lives matter movement is a great example of what empathy can do, but also highlights why so many have previously been blind to the issue. If you and your friends are all from the same background and have never experienced anything else, it can be incredibly hard to understand others experience. But minority groups in US, UK and other Western countries could tell you that the types of systematic abuse highlighted are not new or surprising and has been a regular occurrence for decades. Most from the majority population would however often just refuse to accept that something like that could possibly happen because they have never experienced it. But if they had friends outside of their own race / socio-economic background etc they would have known this was happening for decades. Instead of it only beginning to dawn on people because now everyone has a video camera on their smart phone. By ensuring you interact with people of different ages, races, backgrounds etc, you are able to better empathise with a broader range of individuals.
Expanding on the notion of interacting with different people, travel is a great way to take this to the next level. This is because when you leave your home country, you quickly learn that there is no one way or belief to do absolutely anything. For example, in my home country of UK, you could be from any background, but Christmas by and large is universally acknowledged. A Muslim or Hindu friend or colleague will happily give and receive Christmas cards and gifts, just like a Christian, because the holiday has gone beyond just being a religious event, to a national and cultural occasion celebrated by pretty much everyone. But, when a westerner goes to Japan, they are shocked that Christmas is not even a public holiday and if you want to celebrate it, you need to book a day’s annual leave. In Thailand they celebrate New Year in April with a huge water fight. In Denmark, people actually hang out at cemeteries. By traveling abroad and learning local customs, you begin to understand things from a broad perspective. You also begin to realise that there are universal truths. Regardless of country, everyone wants job security, they want to take care of their family, they want their kids to get a good education etc. Experiencing all of this helps you better empathise with others.