Forget learning a foreign language, cooking perfect pastries or running a marathon. The one skill that will really make you happier and more successful is empathy. Yes I said skill. Because you can learn empathy and the more you practise it, the better you’ll get. Learn French and you’ll be able to communicate better with the 70 million or so native French speakers in the world. Practise empathy and you’ll be able to communicate better with everyone, including the people who are already in your personal and professional life.
I’m writing about empathy today because too many times recently I’ve heard someone say ‘they’re just not good at empathy’ or ‘I’m no good at empathy’. The trouble is, that’s like saying ‘I’m just not good at maths’. You need to practise to get good! If you believe that you can’t do it you don’t have the motivation to practise and so you never GET good. You need to know that you can improve your empathy (and maths!) with practise.
How do I practise? There are loads of exercises, which you can find online and in books. Here is a simple one to get you started.
When you see someone feeling an emotion
- Name the emotion you think they are experiencing.
- Guess why they might be feeling that emotion.
You can start by trying this in your head with strangers. For example you might see someone on the tube carrying lots of bags. You might decide that they are feeling tired and guess that this is because they have had a busy day traipsing round the shops.
Once you are more comfortable with this you should do it with people you know and you should speak to them. Say something like ‘It look like you are experiencing . Is it because .’ The advantage of doing this out loud is that you find out if your guesses are good and that feedback will help you get better at guessing. You will also find that these exchanges sometimes lead to conversations that improve your relationships.
Try this at least once every day for 2 weeks. At the end of each day write down how you felt about the day’s experience. After 2 weeks go back through the experiences. Were they positive? Do you want to continue? Feel free to share some your experiences in the comments.