In recent years, empathy has been in style. Dozens of articles have been written about it, and TED talks of the subject have gone viral. With good reason. Empathy is one of the most important skills a person can have. It allows us to connect with and understand other people. It helps us build products and services that people love. It helps artists create works of art that move and inspire others. It helps us listen, connect, and grow.
But contrary to just about every article you’ll read on the subject, you can’t learn to be more empathetic by simply acting more empathetically. There’s more to it than that. In fact, pretending to be empathetic seems more like a good way of simply being insincere.
I’ve always been told I am a rather empathetic person. I can read people very easily, I can feel what they are feeling, and I can say things in a way that they can understand. It’s a gift I’ve always had. Which is why I’d always be confused when I’d meet people who seem to exhibit no empathy.
So, over a few weeks this spring, I set out to determine what makes some people more empathetic than others. In full disclosure, I did no research on the subject, talked to zero experts, and read no scholarly articles with the word empathy in the title. I simply paid attention to what I and other empathetic people do differently from others who seem less empathetic.
And as far as I can tell, it really comes down to two things: vulnerability and mindfulness.
It stands to reason that to see and understand emotions in others, you have to be able to recognize and understand those same emotions within yourself. If you have never tasted pizza, you would be hard pressed to tell someone else what it tastes like. Similarly, if you have never allowed yourself to feel grief or loss, it would be hard to identify with someone else’s grief or loss.
Most of us have felt these emotions, but not all of us have actively engaged with those emotions in a meaningful and vulnerable way. Sometimes we literally numb ourselves from negative emotions. We do so with distraction, addiction, or just plain willpower. No matter how we do it, many of us are pros at not engaging with negative feelings.
The problem with not being in touch with your own emotions is that you lose your ability to perceive those feelings in others. We’ve all spoken to these people before: You try to talk about something serious and they divert the conversation away to “lighter” topics. Or they just dismiss your attempts at sharing by saying, “Buck Up. You’ll be ok.”
Empathetic people on the other hand are in touch with their own vulnerabilities. They can access their own painful experiences and sit with you in yours. Feeling truly heard or understood is something we experience so little anymore that when a vulnerable person meets us exactly where we are, it is a deeply moving experience.
Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the current moment. It is a skill that is developed through regular meditation and concerted practice. And it also is crucial to developing empathy.
If you are not in the moment, and thus unaware of what is going on around you, you will miss the subtle visual, emotional, and social cues that would clue you in on the emotional states of others. Our growing addiction to digital devices makes not being present easier than ever, but people have found ways to escape the moment for millennia: alcohol, drugs, television, magazines, etc.
If you are mindful and present, however, you will notice the subtle signals other people are sending regarding their emotional state — the slight frown your wife is trying to hide, or the change in your coworker’s voice that indicates he’s feeling a little off.
Vulnerability and Mindfulness — So Empathetic Together
Vulnerability and mindfulness work together to build empathy. If you are in touch with your emotions and are present enough to see them in others, you are by definition more empathetic than someone who chooses not to feel their emotions or is unable to perceive what’s going on for other people.
But please notice: they are interdependent. You can’t have empathy with just one or the other — you need both.
A vulnerable person who is not mindful is likely to be just self-obsessed. They will tell you all day about their ills, pains, and successes, never paying any mind to what is going on with you.
And mindful people who lack vulnerability are aware, present, and peaceful, but have an emotional dryness that renders them almost dead in the eyes. They use meditation and yoga to separate themselves from their emotions, not to get more in touch with themselves.
And then there are the people who have equally well developed skills of vulnerability and mindfulness. They see what’s going on with you and meet you there, whether or not they have experienced the same thing themselves. They notice someone on the train who needs a seat more than they and give theirs up. They notice the small decisions in work of art and imagine for themselves the artist’s intent, genius, and struggle.
Developing Greater Vulnerability and Mindfulness Creates Empathy
Developing your skills of vulnerability and mindfulness takes practice. Volumes have been written on each.
If you feel especially unable to feel your own feelings, you might want to work with a therapist or coach in one-on-one sessions or in a small group. My own work in therapy and men’s groups was pivotal in helping me develop even greater vulnerability.
Mindfulness traditionally comes from a meditation and/or yoga practice. Over time, you learn to stay more and more in the present moment, thus becoming increasingly more aware of what is going on within others and in the world around you.