Five Everyday Exercises to Build Empathy

Empathy is a muscle that, if not used, can atrophy.

It’s easy to dismiss studying modern art and reading a novel on loss as part of a liberal arts curriculum. These days, even MBA students at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Management are doing it for the sake of compassion. Namely, empathy instruction.

Five Everyday Exercises to Build Empathy
Empathy is a muscle that, if not used, can atrophy.

Before you write off Tepper’s program as woo-woo, consider that it is only the latest example of the rising movement to promote empathy in the workplace. Study after research has shown that empathic workplaces are more productive, even if they are still the exception rather than the rule. Every facets of a company, from management and teamwork to negotiations and dispute resolution, from sales and output to customer retention, benefit from empathic thinking. Belinda Parmar, founder of The Empathy Business consultancy, noted in Harvard Business Review that the top 10 companies in the 2015 Global Empathy Index saw their market value rise by more than twice as much as the bottom 10 and generated 50 percent more earnings (as measured by market capitalization).

In a nutshell, empathy has gone from being considered a nice-to-have to an absolute need in today’s business. Top management schools like INSEAD and London Business School require or strongly recommend its students take electives in relational intelligence and self-awareness. There is a rising trend among US businesses to provide empathy training as part of management development or to formally instill the trait in new recruits. Empathy is something that most individuals pick up to some extent as they grow up, but it has recently become connected with effective leadership. It would appear that women have a natural advantage: A 2016 research in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that testosterone can hinder emotional recognition and, by extension, empathy.

The ‘empathy gap’

Despite this, polls reveal that many organizations and their management (which is still predominantly male) are still judged to be emotionally distant from their employees. For example, in a study of 15,000 leaders, just 40% were rated as “proficient or strong in empathy” by their subordinates. Businesssolver’s annual State of Workplace Empathy Research found that while 92% of CEOs believe their company to be empathic, just 72% of employees feel the same way. This gulf in understanding has been dubbed the “empathy gap” by Businesssolver.

Five Everyday Exercises to Build Empathy
The ‘empathy gap’

While the majority of CEOs (72%) agree that workplace empathy can and should be improved, many seem to be at a loss as to how to do so. Many CEOs he has dealt with lack even the most fundamental emotional vocabulary, according to an article by INSEAD adjunct professor Graham Ward published in the journal Knowledge.

Hence, regardless of one’s gender or starting point, the issue is, is it possible to train oneself to be more empathic?

Flexing the empathy muscle

The quick response is “yes.” According to Harvard Business Review author and Stanford University professor of psychology Jamil Zaki, the first step in developing empathy is realizing that it is a skill that can be cultivated. And here are the top five strategies to develop your empathy skills, as I detail in my new book Heartificial Empathy:

1. Listen actively

To improve your listening skills, try paraphrasing what the speaker has just said back to them. You could practice this with anyone, starting with less intimidating interactions like the cashier at your grocery store or the server at a nice restaurant. Learn to read the body language. The trick is to tune into the other person’s emotional tone and internal meaning when you communicate with them.

2. Explore differences

Participate in activities with others who have different cultural perspectives than your own. Joining a community service organization or helping out at a thrift store are two good examples. Learn from the many perspectives of those around you.

3. Read fiction 

Literature gives you insight into the minds and motivations of multifaceted people you may never otherwise “meet.” Whether it’s elementary school pupils or keen readers like former US President Barack Obama, studies have shown a link between literature and improved emotional abilities. It seems that when we read fiction, our brains fool us into feeling like we’re a part of the plot, and the empathy we feel for the characters in the book helps us develop the same sensitivity when dealing with actual people. Hence, Tepper’s strategy has a solid scientific foundation.

Read more: Seven Lessons From Refugees Who Became Entrepreneurs

4. Practise mindfulness 

Focusing on the present moment is central to both mindfulness and meditation. Thus, one must be “there” when listening to another person in order to empathize with them. One of the best books I’ve read on the subject of mindfulness is The 10 Minute Mind by Monique Rhodes.

5. Remember why 

If you have a compelling reason for wanting or needing to improve your capacity for empathy, you are more likely to take the necessary steps to do so. Who are you to complain about not reading fiction when even Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Sheryl Sandberg find the time to do so?

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