Whether it’s helping hurricane victims, working with customers, or having a conversation with strangers, empathy and compassion are must-have factors that move us from understanding to insight and action. Empathy – the ability to understand the feelings of another – is what gives us the ability to take another’s perspective. Through empathy, we develop compassion that strengthens our connections with others and motivates us to take action.
According to Paul Ekman, American psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, we develop emotional recognition and emotional resonance through empathy. Emotional recognition is the most basic form of empathy, recognizing that others are feeling something. Emotional resonance is our ability to see things from another’s perspective – a cornerstone to spurring compassion. Ekman says, “Everyone loves people who resonate with them.”
One of my favorite views on compassion comes from Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, who wrote Teachings on Love. He says, “Compassion contains deep concern.” Hanh goes on to write, “Compassion is the intention and capacity to receive and transform.”
How to cultivate empathy and compassion
- Listen – Pay attention, focus on the whole person. Let what the other person says guide the conversation.
- Pay attention to nonverbal cues – The majority of communication is body language and tone of voice, not words spoken. To truly empathize with someone, you need to see as well as hear them. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “deep looking.”
- Find common ground – This is an easy and powerful way to connect with someone.
- Get out of your head – and into your heart. Connecting with people on an emotional level is what opens the door to empathy.
- Practice – Practice listening and emotional resonance.
- Take bigger steps – As we become practiced in the art of compassion with individuals and small groups, we are ready to take on larger projects that help larger groups of people.
People have an innate desire to see and be seen, to hear and be heard, and to have their needs responded to and respond to needs. It takes practice to be compassionate – it’s a skill that serves us all well.