The Power of Practicing Empathy

Practice empathy by quinn.anya, on Flickr

We pass them in the grocery store.  We breeze by them in the office.  We ride with them on elevators.  Yet, we have no idea what the person standing next to us is really going through, what trauma they may have just experienced, what bad news they may have just heard.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  quinn.anya 


A spouse diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Visiting a parent in hospice unknowingly for the last time.  Wondering how Dad, who just had a stroke, will be taken care of.

These are a few of only millions of real situations people encounter and have to deal with each day.

What’s more, WE may BE the person who’s just received the unfavorable news or the bad diagnosis.

We live in a society where we’re so rushed and busy; it’s normal for us to focus on what we need to do in the moment (this is me).  But what could potentially happen if we just slowed down a moment and stopped to think of those around us, to smile at someone, to just say, “Good morning,” or “Good afternoon” to the person standing in line before us?

I recently watched a video entitled, “Empathy:  The Human Connection to Patient Care,” a video produced by the Cleveland Clinic (I originally saw it on the blog “On Being” by Krista Tippett).

The video started out with a quote by Henry David Thoreau,

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

Just for an instant, just for a moment.

I think sometimes that may be easier said than done.  I know it is for me.

So how do we go about being people who can see through another’s eyes?  How can we learn to show more empathy in our fast-paced world?

According to Roman Krznaric, author of the article, “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People,” empathy is,

“…a habit we can cultivate to improve the quality of our own lives.”


“…[W]e can make empathy an attitude and a part of our daily lives, and thus improve the lives of everyone around us.”

So what are the habits that lead to being able to practice empathy?

  • Habit 1:  Cultivate curiosity about strangers (my husband does this so well) – this entails not just talking to the person next to you about the weather, but about “trying to understand the world inside the person.”
  • Habit 2:  Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities – I know that I’ve made assumptions about people based on the way they look, and upon having a conversation with them, learned they were completely different than what I thought.
  • Habit 3:  Try another person’s life – this is a physically experiential habit.  In other words, do something that represents how another person views life.  For example, if you’re a Christian, attend a Sikh service.  If you don’t like the outdoors, spend some time camping for a night.
  • Habit 4:  Listen hard and open up – really listen and make yourself vulnerable by exposing ourselves and our own emotions (I personally think you have to survey the situation to make sure opening yourself up is really “safe”).
  • Habit 5:  Inspire mass action and social change – practicing empathy is not just for individuals.  People can organize collectively to practice empathy to inspire social change.  It seems the Occupy movement may have fit that bill, at least initially.  But according to the article, collective change will most likely come about by teaching this new generation of children how to be empathic.  As well, social networking is a vehicle that can be a catalyst for change.
  • Habit 6:  Develop an ambitious imagination – this seems similar to Habit 3.  According to the article, “We also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way. If you are a campaigner on global warming, for instance, it may be worth trying to step into the shoes of oil company executives…”

So here are six habits that we can develop to help us grow in empathy.