How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Tune into others
Guest articles > Tune into others
by: Rick Hanson
Imagine a world in which people interacted with each other like ants or fish.
Imagine a day at work like this, or in your family, aware of the surface
behavior of the people around you but oblivious to their inner life while they
remain unmoved by your own.
That's a world without empathy. To me, it sounds like a horror film.
Without empathy, there can be no real love, compassion, kindness, or
friendship. Empathic breakdowns shake the foundation of a relationship; just
recall a time you felt misunderstood - or even worse, a time when the other
person could care less about understanding you. In particular, anyone who is
vulnerable (e.g., children, the elderly) has a profound need for empathy, and
when it's a thin soup or missing altogether, that's very disturbing. In my
experience as a therapist, poor empathy is the core problem in most troubled
couples or families; without it, nothing good is likely to happen; with it, even
the toughest issues can be resolved.
Empathy gives you a feeling for what it's like to be another person. When you
are empathic, even quietly and tacitly, that tells the other person that he or
she exists for you as a being, as a Thou to your I. That's usually what people
most want to know; it's more fundamental than whatever topic is on the table.
Empathy is soothing, calming, bridge-building; when it's present, it's much easier to work through things. Empathy gives you lots of useful information, like what's most important to others or what's really bothering them.
This week, repeatedly tune into the interior of the people around you; "empathy
moments" often take just a few seconds.
To help yourself, remember that empathy is not agreement or approval. You can
tune into someone who hurt you or is irritating; you're not waiving your rights!
Nor do you have to solve the other person's problem.
Also know that empathy is completely natural. As we evolved, the brain
developed three circuits (loosely defined) for empathy that simulate the
actions, emotions, and thoughts of others. For example, when you experience an
emotion, a part of your brain called the insula lights up; remarkably, when you
see emotions in others, some of the same neurons in your insula activate as
well. The result is you get a taste of what they're feeling. You were born
Start by centering yourself so you don't feel overwhelmed; studies have found
that, paradoxically, a little feeling of detachment actually promotes empathy;
as Robert Frost wrote, fences make for good neighbors. Then open up to other
people, letting their inner life flow through you like wind through the leaves
of a deeply rooted tree.
Tune into their breathing, posture, gestures, actions. Imagine what it would
feel like to move your own body in the same ways.
Tune into their emotions, particularly the softer ones underneath verbal
positions or anger. Watch the eyes closely; human eyes are the most expressive
of any species on our planet. Open up to your own gut feelings, which could be
resonating with those of other people. Ask yourself what you would be feeling if
you were them.
Tune into their thoughts, memories, expectations, needs, and intentions. Form
little hypotheses in your mind about what could be going on over there. Take
into account what you know about their personal history - including with you -
and their temperament, priorities, hot buttons. Be curious and look beneath the
Be respectful, not persuasive or prosecutorial. Don't muddle empathy with
asserting your own views or needs; do that part later.
Stay with it. Empathy is a kind of mindfulness practice, sustaining attention
this time to someone else's inner world.
And when it's your turn to receive empathy, you'll know better what it is you
are asking for.
The best way to get empathy is to give it.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and Huffington Post, and he is the author of the best-selling Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. He writes a weekly newsletter - Just One Thing - that suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.
Contributor: Rick Hanson
Published here on: 17-Jul-11
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