Empathy: How to Develop Our Empathy Skillset

Develop our empathy skillset

In this blog from our Neuroleader Academy™ in which we explore insights from neuroscience and how to integrate them into everyday life, we consider how to develop our empathy skillset.

This month, in this third and final blog of the series, Deborah Hulme, founder of Minerva Engagement and The Neuroleader Academy™ in collaboration with the IGD, continues her exploration of empathy.  In previous blogs we have considered the role of empathy in connection and relationship and the definition of empathy versus compassion.  In this blog we will look at the different ways in which we can enhance and develop our empathy skillset as well as consider what might get in the way.

Empathy is the skillset that fuels our ability to connect with and influence those around us

Empathy, according to Brené Brown, is the skillset, that fuels our ability to connect with and influence those around us. As a core component of emotional intelligence, it is as crucial for cultivating sustainable everyday relationships as it is for developing effective leadership capability.  Fortunately, whilst influenced by genes, it is a skillset that can be enhanced by all of us, if we are prepared to focus attention on the learning required and put in the work.

Increasing awareness of our own empathy skillset is an important first step

The first thing is to increase our own self-awareness of how well developed our empathy skillset may or may not be. How well do we connect with those around us?  Is our life a mix of joy, connection and collaboration or, alternatively anger, disconnection and isolation?  How are people responding to us, do they walk towards us or run away?  By reflecting on the current state of our life and our relationships at home, at work and within our friendship groups, we can develop a deeper understanding of how much time and attention we need to pay to the cultivation of our empathy skillset.

The self is always the best place to start, it is difficult to develop empathy for others if we are not first practising self-care.  For example, how well are we taking care of our own health and wellbeing, how rested are we, are we clear on our own boundaries and what is and is not ok for us? Do we notice our own feelings and reactions when in the company of others and how comfortable are we with our own sense of vulnerability?  As our self-empathy strengthens we become more empathic towards others and whilst empathy skills, in general, are not complex, they do demand a degree of self-awareness and self-management, as well as lots of practice.

Developing our empathy skill set includes:

  • Enhancing our observation skills

To do this we need to slow down, pay attention and focus on what is happening around us.  Do we really know what is going on with our family, friends or work colleagues, have we slowed down enough to notice emotion, body language, interests or disappointments?  How often does ‘ I will be there in 5-minutes turn into 2-hours, how often are meetings missed or cancelled or school activities skipped?  What impact does this have on our relationships and what can we do to improve, if we need to?

  • Developing a deep sense of curiosity

How often do we question for understanding and insight as opposed to just assuming we understand the intent, feeling or thoughts of others?  It’s useful to remember that no two brains are alike, we are all wired differently, dependent on, for example, our culture, our upbringing or our education.  Therefore, the only way we can really understand the perspective of another person is through questions and ongoing curiosity.

  • Practice being present

We live in a distracted world and whilst science tells us that effective multi-tasking, for about 95% of the global population is a myth, many of us still insist on doing it.  And if we are not multi-tasking we are concentrating on what we are going to say next rather than what is being said to us.  Active listening, not interrupting and being fully present in the moment can be difficult.  When finding it difficult to focus attention, we can use meditation or mindfulness practice to strengthen our skills and in ‘real-time’ we can slow our breathing rate, particularly the exhale, which makes it easier to focus and calm our system in the present.

  • Curl up with the dog and a book

Research has shown that the more we take imaginative journeys through the lives of others, viewing an endless range of different situations through the eyes of different characters, the more empathy develops.  Fiction is a great way to do this, transported as we are into a vast array of different situations.  Non-fiction, when centred on the experiences of people who have struggled or excelled their way through life, is also excellent.  In addition to literature and reading, animals help us extend our empathy skills as we learn to notice, understand and react to their non-verbal feelings and behaviours, without the benefit of language.

As we develop our skills there are also certain things to watch for, for example:

  • Be alert to unconscious bias or emerging prejudice

We are all prone to stereotype, make snap judgements based on first impressions and casually project our biases and preconceptions onto other people while knowing very little about the reality of their lives.  Hence the importance of being able to suspend judgement, regulate rising emotion and focus on similarity rather than difference when in conversation.

  • Be aware of too much deference to authority

One of the greatest obstacles to empathy is the human tendency to obey authority. Obedience to authority is not simply an innate trait embedded in human nature but is influenced by context and culture, which we learn from a very young age. What makes highly empathic people unusual is their desire and capacity to defy authority when empathic action calls for it, for example when the person in authority is directing or ordering us to engage in behaviour that is in direct opposition to care, connection and kindness.

  • Distance can create a barrier

For example, we have a tendency to care less about people we do not know, those whose lives are far away and unfamiliar to us.  We are biased too care more for those who are more like us whether through education, ethnicity or religion.  Highly empathic people are curious and work hard to see the world through the eyes of strangers and those that normally sit outside their usual group.

  • Beware of denial

We are skilled at inventing convenient reasons for lack of action to relieve the suffering of others. Through our acts or omissions, we are experts at avoiding responsibility when it suits us. Whereas highly empathic people avoid such forms of denial, understanding that whilst denial may relieve the sense of guilt or moral responsibility, it also weakens the core of their empathic self.

 

This brings us to the end of our third and final blog on empathy. We hope you have enjoyed learning more about the subject, what it is and is not, and importantly the distinction between empathy and compassion. We hope you have found it an interesting and informative journey.

Deborah Hulme is a practitioner of neuroleadership and the application of neuroscience to improve wellbeing and performance within teams and organisations. She is a thought-leader and speaker on an international platform. You can find out more about Minerva Engagement’s Neuroleader Academy™ here, to find out more about what we do and how we might support you and your team then get in touch at engage@minervaengagement.com

This blog – Empathy: how to develop our empathy skillset is developed in partnership with the Institute of Grocery Distributors (IGD) and is now available to access as a podcast. To listen to this podcast and our full Empathy podcast series, click here. The IGD is an education and training charity for the food and grocery industry undertaking research for the benefit of the public. It develops people working in or looking to join the industry and creates a secure and sustainable public benefit through publicly sharing best practice and other research on the food industry.

References

Brown, B.,. 2021. RSA Short: Empathy | Brené Brown. [online] Available at: <https://brenebrown.com/videos/rsa-short-empathy/>

Brown, B., 2018. Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

Ehrlich, P. and Ornstein, R., 2012. Humanity on a tightrope. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Harvard Business Review. 2021. If You Can’t Empathize with Your Employees, You’d Better Learn To. [online] Available at: <https://hbr.org/2016/11/if-you-cant-empathize-with-your-employees-youd-better-learn-to> [Accessed 14 April 2021].

Harvard Business Review. 2021. Research: Perspective-Taking Doesn’t Help You Understand What Others Want. [online] Available at: <https://hbr.org/2018/10/research-perspective-taking-doesnt-help-you-understand-what-others-want> [Accessed 14 April 2021].

Newschool.edu. 2021. Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind | The New School for Social Research| The New School News Releases. [online] Available at: <https://www.newschool.edu/pressroom/pressreleases/2013/CastanoKidd.htm> [Accessed 14 April 2021].

Boston University. 2021. BU Research: A Riddle Reveals Depth of Gender Bias | BU Today | Boston University. [online] Available at: <http://www.bu.edu/articles/2014/bu-research-riddle-reveals-the-depth-of-gender-bias/> [Accessed 14 April 2021].

Krznaric, R., 2015, Empathy: Why it matters and how to get it. Rider