How to build empathy

By Mimi Nicklin,
updated on Sep 11, 2020

How to build empathy

We all have the ability to be empathetic, but how can we make sure that we’re tuning into this innate skill and projecting it into the world around us?

Is empathy an ‘everyday reality’? And is it a skill you can learn? The answer to both of these questions is yes, but this deeply instinctive skillset is being underutilized across all walks of our society. So, what is empathy and how can we increase our use of it?

Often mistaken as a skill we are born, empathy is a natural ability we all possess, that helps us to see the world through the eyes of others. That said, we do have to recognise the need to practice empathy if we are to bring more of it into our daily lives – empathy may be a capability we are born with, but using it is a choice.

Like so many things in life, the decision to empathise with others is the only thing between talking about a more empathetic relationship and actually having one. Empathy is a skill deeply embedded into us as human beings (within the cerebral cortex part of our brains), yet often we aren’t activating the power of this ability, and we are now seeing a thirty-year decline in levels of empathy worldwide.

The impact on our health and wellbeing is vast, from higher levels of anxiety and depression, deep levels of loneliness, and burnout. Yet, with a little more focus and a little more time, we can ensure this is a skillset we use to the advantage of those around us, as well as ourselves, to reverse these detrimental trends. After all, deeply connecting to those we share our time with is evolution’s way of ensuring we thrive as a society.

Empathy has now gone mainstream. In 2020, we are more aware than ever about the need to be deeply connected to those around us, whether that is in our romantic relationship, our friendships, with our colleagues or within our parental roles. Empathy is one of civilisation’s oldest traits, and instinctive behaviours, and it doesn’t only deepen the quality of our relationships but, as proven by neuro- scientific studies, it makes our relationships more rewarding emotionally.

group of friends

So how might you make every-day empathy your everyday reality?

1. Practice live listening

How often do you find yourself listening but not really taking note of what the other person is saying? Your body may have been in the same room, but your attention is elsewhere. Use your whole being in this process to ensure your body language shows that you are leaning in and interested, your eye contact remains focused and your attention is towards the speaker.

2. Offer interpersonal focus

We know that when people feel understood, stress levels are lower, immunity is therefore higher, and our perceived safety and security goes up. Understanding the perspective of another not only helps you to gain clarity and context, but it creates confidence and calm in those you are connecting with. When people feel they are heard, they feel better – in fact we all feel better.

3. Don’t underestimate small gestures in empathy building

The small and humble cannot be underestimated. Showing you care with a ‘thank you’, a cup of tea, or a hand-written card all offer a sign that you naturally understand the receiver. These tiny gestures so often prove far deeper connectivity than a sweeping grand gesture ever could.

4. Be curious

Inquiry drives connection. Start conversations and provoke sharing by asking questions to deepen your understanding of those around you. The most empathetic of people are nearly always natural inquirers.

5. Be patient

Allow people to fully finish their sentences and thoughts. Don’t interrupt, and be patient when it comes to moments of silence. Our instinct is to jump in and complete the story but a moment of silence often encourages people to share more insightfully than they perhaps would have otherwise.

Oh, and put your phone away – this could be the most critical of all our everyday tips! After all, if you senses are more engaged with social media than they are with society, we have a far steeper climb when it comes to engaging with real empathy in the real world.

Mimi Nicklin is a globally recognised millennial thought-leader. She is host of the 'Empathy for Breakfast' show, 'Secrets of The Gap' podcast and author of new book ‘Softening the Edge’ out 15 September (RRP £10.95). For more information go to miminicklin.com

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