What is empathy?
Empathy is understanding how others feel and being compassionate toward them. It happens when two parts of the brain work together, neuroscientists say — the emotional center perceives the feelings of others and the cognitive center tries to understand why they feel that way and how we can be helpful to them. Some people are more naturally empathetic than others, but there are easy, evidenced-based exercises that anyone can do to increase their empathy.
Ways to Increase Empathy:
- Talk to New People - Start conversations with strangers or invite a peer you don’t know well to lunch. Go beyond small talk – ask them how they’re doing and what their daily life is like.
- Try Out Someone Else’s Life - Attend someone else’s church, mosque, synagogue, or other house of worship for a few weeks while they attend yours. Spend time in a new neighborhood.
- Join Forces for a Shared Cause - Work on a project with other people to reinforce everyone’s individual expertise and humanity and minimize the differences that can divide people.
- Admit You're Biased - We’re all biased. Acknowledging that is the first step. The second step is taking action to overcome it. One way to learn more about your biases is to take an unconscious bias quiz, like this one from Project Implicit, a nonprofit started by researchers at Harvard, the University of Washington, and the University of Virginia.
- Check Your Privilege - The flip side of bias is privilege. Bias puts certain groups of people at a disadvantage in our society, while privilege puts other groups at an advantage. Your privileges are things that give you special status and that you didn’t earn and don’t necessarily realize you benefit from. One example is when white people, unlike African-Americans, don’t worry about police violence during a routine traffic stop.
- Stand Up for Others - Empathy should drive us to act compassionately toward others.
- Take Action - The next step, after acknowledging your privileges, is to put them to use on behalf of groups who don’t have them. Donate money to causes that help people in need or attend a rally in support of them and speak up when someone makes a discriminatory comment or interrupts. This is especially important to do when you’re not part of the community being undermined.
- Amplify Other Voices - Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is step aside and create a space for those outside your group to speak.
- It's Not About You - Advocate for things that will help others, even if they don’t directly affect you, like helping to organize an event for black communities even if you don’t live in one.