16 Ways To Train & Increase Your Empathy (and why we lose it)

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Empathy is a desirable human trait and it is central to relationships, community well-being, and professional growth. In what people call emotional intelligence – the sensitivity & the skill to regulate, understand, and use emotions – empathy is a necessary force.

On some level, empathy is natural. Most people are aware that others have unique feelings and thoughts. Most people can resonate with some other people on those feelings and thoughts. It’s hard-wired. People also know that humans have similar emotions and deep down, they are not that dissimilar from each other – similar insecurities, similar goals, & similar reactions drive a lot of human bonding. All of this is a part of what psychologists call “the theory of mind.”

But, on another level, we could all actively use more empathy. Not just in the feeling sense, but in a more cognitive-affective way – to guide decisions, to appeal to others, to cultivate relationships, to resolve conflicts, to advertise, etc.

What is Empathy and The Theory of Mind?

Empathy has 4 elements.

  • A cognitive & thinking capacity to understand and adopt different perspectives
  • A capacity to self-regulate behavior and emotions while keeping track of the origin of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors (self & others)
  • An affective (emotional) capacity to respond and sensibly react to other’s emotions
  • A social capacity to share emotions appropriately

These factors are grounded in a larger framework called The Theory of mind[1] – the ability to attribute attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, perspectives, and experiences to yourself, and the capacity to understand that other people can have different attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, perspectives, and experiences. Empathy is quite important when it comes to understanding the concept of pain and perceived pain.

Empathic conversations have a number of common characteristics: accepting others’ thoughts, acknowledging and validating other people, attempting to understand another point of view, building the confidence that a person is listening and not just hearing, etc. Typical statements begin with “I can imagine what that’s like”, “I understand what you are saying/feeling”, etc. Any slang variants of these sentences work as well.

And here is the kicker – empathy, as well as expressed empathy is plastic[2] – which means it can be trained and developed with deliberate effort. Your brain will physically alter itself a little bit to accommodate empathic skills, even if you have brain damage[3].

Where does empathy come from?

A large portion of empathy comes from the “as-if-body-loop[4]“. The loop is a set of neural structures that estimates other people’s mental states by mirroring (copying) others’ physically observable states and inducing the same state in oneself automatically. The theory suggests that the physical state gives rise to the emotional state, so when we copy someone’s physical state, it automatically gives rise to a similar emotional state. When we mirror others’ physical movements on purpose or mimic their facial gestures, we develop an “Internal Representation” of that state. We then use that internal representation to guide our responses by activating various types of automatic behaviors (facial gestures), learned behaviors (specific words), and various memories.

The as-if-body-loop develops during childhood but continues to refine itself depending on our experiences with others. Looking at animal studies[5], most mammals may have some degree of mirroring-based emotional “resonance” – the evolutionary precursor to human empathy. Some level of empathy is well-documented for primates, rodents, and domesticated animals.

Empathy training techniques for adults and adolescents

Let us look at some activities to help people improve and facilitate empathy. For many people, it’s not the lack of empathy, it’s the lack of extending and using empathy. These techniques will help you increase your capacity to empathize as well as the ability to express empathy.

1. Read literary fiction

Reading fictional stories influences the theory of mind, empathy, attitude, and personality. It’s quite wholesome as a hobby and a habit of reading can figuratively put you in someone else’s shoes. Even if you don’t remember the details of a story, it has an impact on you because you get the opportunity to experience narratives in an intimate way. (source)

2. Learn to recognize facial expressions

A large part of empathy is recognizing facial expressions, verbal cues like emotional words, and emotional contexts. Learning to identify emotional components in conversations can improve your empathic response. Learn the meaning of emojis, watch actors, observe faces, notice changes in the eyes, and observe expressions alongside spoken language. Pay attention to all things that make us human. (source[6])

3. Take acting lessons

Acting involves taking up a set of characteristics and personality traits that don’t truly belong to you. Actors train for years and learn to put on a convincing face. Sometimes they draw from their own experience to resonate (discussed later) and sometimes they regulate facial expressions, body language, voice, etc. to match a context in a near authentic way – Keanu Reeves took lessons from the US Marines to train for John Wick. Learning how to act teaches people a lot about subtle socio-cognitive features that are embedded in society – words, expressions, give & takes, picking up on signals, etc. All of these elements come together to boost empathy and the theory of mind. (source[7])

4. Use the perspective-taking technique

Think of any person you are close to. There is a strong chance that you know a lot more about this person than just factual knowledge. You probably know this person’s attitude toward social causes, idiosyncrasies, and some experiences which shape them. Use this knowledge as a metaphorical lens and ask the question “What would XYZ do/feel?” This question will force you to think through a filter. This filter is the representation of that person in your brain. It’ll help you become an abstract version of that person and you’ll gain a new perspective. Using this technique will also help you experience a moment with a changed set of tendencies, traits, and attention to detail – people focus on different details of an experience. That’s one of the reasons we all interpret events differently and react in unique ways. (source)

5. Doubt your interpretation

We intuitively experience the world in certain ways and those are (without sounding nihilistic) our ways. To improve your empathic skills, you can force a change in your interpretation by asking the question “In what other way can I interpret this?” Begin by interpreting the smallest details differently. The goal here is to change your perception step by step until you have a completely different perspective. Sometimes this is easy. You can assume a different interpretation without changing any detail. Sometimes, you need to vary the emotional load of experiences to gain a new perspective. Something emotionally heavy for you can be neutral for someone else and something trivial for you can be a big deal to another person. (source[8])

6. Manipulate words

Spot assumptions, unknowns, metaphors, anecdotes, facts, etc. in a sentence or someone else’s argument. Everything apart from facts is variable and can be interpreted in more than one way. That’s when you can see someone else’s point of view. Practice doing this with a friend and try to populate a variety of interpretations by changing words. Here is an example: “I was talking the other day and my friend was getting all riled-up for no reason.”

This sentence can be broken down to a few facts and a few unknowns. You can change the words in the example to highlight what the facts are and aren’t.

Facts: There were at least 2 people. One was talking. One appeared riled up to the other. The 2 people are friends. “No reason” is an assumption. “Talking” is variable.

Unknowns: One appeared to be riled up but no connection can be drawn. The reason is unknown. The link between talking and riling up is not clearly established nor is there more information in the statement.

Separating the knowns from the unknowns all you to explore new possibilities. Perhaps the friend was riled up because of someone else, perhaps the riled-up friend can’t explain, perhaps the talking friend was projecting, or maybe misrepresenting the conversation (while speaking, your attention can be fully occupied and you could be blind to your own behavior). In our case, the word talking could be yelling without awareness and that change in phrasing explains the situation.

This will help you populate new perspectives and those will affect your ability to think from different points of view. (source[9])

7. Know the theory of mind

Knowing that everything everyone says comes with a background story and background information can be enough for you to augment your empathy. There are tendencies, attitudes, experiences, opinions, knowledge, etc. behind everyone’s thoughts. Some people might not lack empathic abilities so training isn’t the solution. Those abilities could be inhibited or blocked by other competing thoughts – like making a point and placing yourself at the center of the conversation. An occasional reminder to act on the theory of mind is enough to increase expressed empathy. (source[10])

8. Rephrase and Acknowledge (Active-Empathic Listening)

In a conversation, the speaker does not always know that the listener is understanding. One way to solve this problem is to rephrase the essence of what the speaker said. Doing this can help you become a better listener, acknowledge the speaker, and improve the cognitive component of empathy – the ability to use words and integrate them into an empathic thought. (source[11])

9. Identify Intentions

Very often, the absolute truth of what other’s are saying is not the goal of communication. The goal is to be heard. So take-in information from others for what it is – something to be heard – based on intention, not factual accuracy. Notice physical movements because they correspond to intentions. (source[12])

10. Avoid polarizing

Bombarding with an opposite view often causes someone else to feel dismissed which threatens their self-concept and experiential knowledge which has shaped them. This appears as a personal threat and the mind goes into defending their original POV, which further strengthens. So not doing this helps to assimilate more points of view. Humans love dichotomies and one view often elicits a reactionary view that is unnecessarily extreme and polarized. You’ll see this a lot in political discussions. People go through a cycle of the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis – Someone says something (thesis), other’s disagree and say the opposite (antithesis), and then they reconcile because both positions have merits and demerits (synthesis). You can form your antithesis, but actively seek out a synthesis. (source[13])

11. Practice rotating objects

The ability to physically see & imagine shapes and locations from a different angle helps in inducing empathy. This happens because the ability to have a literal point of view is associated with the ability to have a metaphorical and imagined point of view. The two share some common neural mechanisms[14]. When you improve the physical ability to rotate objects or imagine an object from unexpected angles, you can strengthen the neural circuitry that creates empathy.

Can the objects above look like any of the darkened shapes from any particular angle? Practice rotating and moving the object mentally.

If that’s too boring, play TETRIS. It’s a fun way to rotate objects and estimate how their position interacts with other shapes. You can treat each shape as a person and some insight will follow. (source[15])

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12. See things from a self-construal level

The Self (you) & construal (how you understand/construe) level defines how people relate to themselves and society. On one end, people are pure individuals and talk about how they see things from their point of view. On the other end, they are merged with society or other people and talk about how others’ actions affect each other. Assess a person’s context with the construal level and see what information they are focusing on. Social? Personal? Factual? Assumptions? Impact? Each action or sentence comes with its context that differs when you see it from a “construal” which can be a personal point of view, a social point of view, or a 3rd-person point of view. That context can help with empathy when someone’s thoughts and experiences aren’t intuitive. (source[16])

13. Judge the need to maintain factual accuracy

Not every opinion can be classified right or wrong, not every statement has to be factually accurate, people are comfortable being wrong for a million reasons. Many don’t care. So a conflict of POVs doesn’t have to be a conflict in most contexts. The trick here is to let things be and engage, even if you don’t agree or “know” others are wrong. This will put you in a survey mode where receiving information is just receiving information, not interpreting it.

14. Anthropomorphize & Personify

People form relationships with objects. They get attached to inanimate objects. You must’ve heard the idea “give a stone a name, love it, and care for it, and it’ll hurt you if someone smashes it.” People tend to anthropomorphize things and they develop emotions. Knowing this is important, but recognizing when this happens is even more important to understand human behavior. If you want to increase empathy, anthropomorphize something and let that slingshot you into a spectrum of human experiences. (source[17])

15. Empathic Resonance

Using words to understand your personal experiences can help you utilize that understanding to conceptualize someone else’s experience. This is the act of resonating with someone else. Resonating with similar experiences is easy. To resonate with more people, can you imagine a variety of hypothetical experiences and form an abstract understanding. Use words to describe your experience and try to use those words to help you understand someone else’s experience. Such resonance facilitates bodily changes – heart rate, muscle tension, sweat, etc. This change makes the emotion more real than how it feels by imagining it. (source[18])

16. Mirror & Mimic Movements

Although this sounds like a cliche, it is supported by evidence. In a framework called Dance and Movement Therapy, practitioners ask patients to mirror movements to enhance empathy. Mirroring other people’s movements help via multiple mechanisms – movement employs the motor cortex similarly in all people, emotional movements help in inferring emotional states, and mimicry creates a neural simulation of the one who is mimicked. (source[19])

Situational reasons that reduce empathy

While empathy can be trained and acquired as a skill, there are multiple reasons why it is suppressed by situational factors. But those can be controlled.

1. Low oxytocin

An oxytocin deficiency can reduce empathy. The reasons can range from not having enough touch-based personal interactions to dietary deficiencies. Research shows that people deficient in oxytocin[20] exhibit higher empathy after getting a dose of oxytocin. Deficiency in oxytocin is often linked to psychopathy.

2. In-group vs. out-group focus

Sometimes, we commit positive behavior more to our in-group and compete with our out-group. So we may show more nice-ness and co-operation for those we consider similar to us and extend less of it to others who come from a different group. These groups can be as simple as neighbors vs. guests, race 1 vs. race 2, managers vs. interns, family vs. friends, etc. Any common feature between people can create differences in how we behave with in-group vs. out-group members. Because of the grouping-based identity, we may show less empathy for those that are not exclusively in your group.

3. Inward focus

Focusing on your personal experiences instead of processing others’ experiences during a conversation might activate your own memories and take attention away from others’ experiences. Studies show focusing on personal experiences takes attention away from any potential empathy, especially when we remember a highly relatable memory when someone shares their story.

4. Painkillers

Research suggests[21] that pain perception and emotion perception have a common denominator or a shared neural circuit. Inhibiting one inhibits the other. Painkillers (acetaminophen/paracetamol) appear to reduce empathy for pain. (this finding should not be construed as “advice” or a “recommendation”)

5. Emotional distance

The intensity of emotions usually reduces when a person is far away or if we think of them as distant, unrelatable, unattached, or inaccessible. The idea of psychological distance is processed as physical distance, so high distance reduces the impact/influence of what someone says. That is why a stranger might not feel too sad about your situation but your best friend might do everything in their power to improve your situation because they feel sad about it too. When we think of others as distant people, or ourselves as distant from them, our empathy might reduce until that distance reduces. Simply increasing sensory contact might reduce this distance.

6. Social power differences

A part of empathy is about helping others and “giving.” There is some evidence[22] to support the idea that social power differences affect the value of offering something. Being in a position of power may lead to offering less value to those with lesser power. And the powerful ones may even expect more value from others. This tendency is not truly empathy-based but it mimics the outcomes associated with empathy. For example, a housekeeping person may offer more value as a kind gesture to a manager based on their total affordability but a manager may not give an equal portion of their total affordability for a similar kind gesture.

Now that you have a variety of techniques to increase the capacity to empathize and express empathy, you can enjoy better interpersonal relationships and resolve conflicts.

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[1]: https://journals.lww.com/topicsinlanguagedisorders/Abstract/2014/10000/Theory_of_Mind_and_Empathy_as_Multidimensional.3.aspx
[2]: https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/9/6/873/1669505
[3]: https://www.archives-pmr.org/article/S0003-9993(18)30938-9/fulltext
[4]: https://people.ict.usc.edu/~gratch/CSCI534/Readings/The%20Somatic%20Marker%20Hypothesis%20and%20the%20Possible%20Functions%20of%20the%20Prefrontal%20Cortex%20[andDiscussion].pdf
[5]: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0166223613000830
[6]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3538101/
[7]: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15248372.2011.573514
[8]: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1954-08700-001
[9]: https://books.google.co.in/books?id=IpY5AAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
[10]: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1046/j.1365-2923.2000.00463.x
[11]: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08934215.2011.610731
[12]: https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/imp/jcs/2001/00000008/f0030005/1208
[13]: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ajps.12008
[14]: https://essuir.sumdu.edu.ua/handle/123456789/44529
[15]: https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/soco.2015.33.3.187
[16]: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17470919.2013.867899
[17]: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12369-014-0263-x
[18]: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/social-neuroscience-empathy
[19]: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0197455611000426
[20]: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17470919.2014.948637
[21]: https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/11/9/1345/2224135
[22]: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2008-14857-009
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