Management and Leadership Series Posted by Nicola Maxwell

In the first article in our series on the topic of empathy we looked at what it means to be empathetic. The second article concluded that empathy is a critical business skill.

We now answer a key question, “Is empathy something anyone can develop or is there a magic gene that means we either have it or we don’t?”

In fact, 98% of us have the ability to empathise wired into our brains but most of us don’t tap into it.

What if you don’t see yourself as someone who is particularly empathetic? Is empathy something you can develop or is there a magic gene that means we either have it or we don’t? In fact, 98% of us have the ability to empathise wired into our brains but most of us don’t tap into it.

Here are five ways you can begin to tap into your more empathic self.

1. Take a different perspective – talking to a group of newly graduated students at an American university, Barack Obama said, “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit -the ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us.” In order to do this, we need to connect with people who are different from us. One way to expand your circle is to volunteer with a charity or a community cause that will give you contact with people from more diverse backgrounds. This will bring you closer to people’s experiences and help you gain more understanding about the challenges they face.

2. Try something new – when I turned 40, I made a personal pledge to try something new every month. I tried wakeboarding, walked 26 miles through the night, confronted my anxiety of heights by clambering through a treetop obstacle course and tried indoor skydiving, which literally took my breath away. Trying new things builds our humility by putting us in situations that may initially feel uncomfortable and where we may even be feeling vulnerable (definitely skydiving!). By building our humility we are more able to think of others before ourselves which is key to empathy.

3. Have more mindful conversations – when in conversation with people really tune into what they are saying. Aim to listen more than you speak and pay attention to non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expressions. Give the conversation your full focus and see what else you pick up on.

4. Get curious – striking up conversations with strangers, whether on your daily commute, when you’re out walking the dog or at your kid’s school fundraiser, can open up opportunities that give you insight into how other people feel and think. Commit to speaking to someone you don’t know at least once a week and see what you learn about people. Another way to activate your curiosity is to visit new places. Explore a new part of your city or town or travel somewhere you haven’t been before and “go loco” to really experience what life is like for people living there.

5. Walk in someone else’s shoes – in the story ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, as Scout Finch stands on Bo’s front porch, she contemplates, “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” The great method actors like Daniel Day Lewis take this advice seriously when preparing to play a character. During the filming of ‘My Left Foot’, Day-Lewis spent the entire film shoot immersed in the character of Christy Brown, the Irish writer and painter who suffered from cerebral palsy. This meant he stayed in a wheelchair throughout filming and was spoon-fed by the crew. If you want to do a bit of ‘method acting’ yourself, you could take part in a charity ‘sleep-out’. According to the charity, ‘Social Bite’, which organises mass sleep-outs, “An event like this can never recreate the true experience of homelessness, however, it undoubtedly can generate awareness and empathy and keeps the spotlight firmly on a situation which we believe should not exist in this country.” ‘Dialogue in the dark’ sessions have also given people a sense of what it is like to navigate their way around when blind.

Empathy is something we can all develop if we really want to.

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