Empathy is a muscle: Here are 5 ways to develop yours
Empathy, understanding, and open-mindedness are values we all know we should strive to achieve. That’s why the United Nations addresses progress toward this goal during their annual International Day for Tolerance. And while the U.N.’s event is an incredible yearly reminder, understanding how to develop empathy is relevant every single day of the year.
At EF Education First, we’ve helped build bridges between people for more than half a century because we’ve seen firsthand that the world is better when we try to understand one another. So if you’re looking for ways to develop your empathy, we recommend the following:
1. Learn from everyone
Teachers are amazing, but they aren’t the only people you can learn from. Think of every conversation you have with someone as an opportunity to learn something new—whether you’re talking to your 97-year-old grandmother about the origins of your family recipes, to your 27-year-old coworker about where they’re volunteering their time, or to your 7-year-old neighbor about the chalk art they’re creating on your shared sidewalk.
Not sure you’ll learn something? Don’t worry about that part. Just ask them to tell you about something that matters to them—and truly listen. When you engage with others in this way, you’re guaranteed to learn more about them and their interests.
2. Follow diverse sources of information and entertainment
Always watch the same news station or read the same newspaper? Try a new one and see if your perspective shifts at all. Only follow people on social media who look like you, are of similar ages or think like you do? Seek out, follow, and engage with diverse accounts to broaden your understanding of other people’s lives and get inspired by new ideas you wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to.
3. Remember the rules of engagement
Keep in mind; nobody can be open-minded while they’re being attacked, ridiculed, or shamed. So when you’re engaged in a debate (or simply a difficult conversation), temper your approach to ensure that everyone comes out of it feeling respected and having learned something valuable.
4. Escape to another country for a night
You can travel and learn about the world in more ways than just by getting on an airplane. Watch TV shows and movies from other countries, and you’ll get a sense of how people live in different places—the cultural rituals, the details of everyday life, and even societal challenges. You’ll gain understanding—even from afar—of how their lives are similar to and different from your own. And as a bonus, it may help you sharpen your foreign language skills.
5. Explore another neighborhood
Going somewhere new can be very exciting, even if that new place is just one neighborhood or town away. There’s so much to see and explore—stores may sell products you’ve never heard of, people may dress in a different style than you’re accustomed to, and you may even hear other languages spoken. It’s all an opportunity to learn, and you’ll come out of these experiences discovering as much about yourself as you learned about this new community.
There’s no end to the work of developing empathy—and that’s a good thing! You can never be too empathetic, too understanding, or too open-minded. Stay committed to exercising these muscles, and you’ll see that the more work you put in toward this goal, the more you’ll get out of it—like richer relationships, clearer perspectives, and a greater understanding of the world.