In my two-year-old granddaughter, Olivia, I can already see the development of compassion – seeds of empathy. Olivia is often self-centered, as two-year-olds are. Occasionally, though, she will reach out and share a flower, or a block, or a piece of fruit with another. I can already see the development of an understanding of the emotional needs of others. Where does compassion or empathy come from? How can we cultivate it? How do we harvest and plant the seeds of empathy?
Some say that empathy is a skill, that it can be learned. I agree that through observation and training, we can develop empathy further and further. Much of my education as a counselor, and in the non-violent communication process in which I continue to train is about learning the skills related to empathy. Though it may seem paradoxical that compassion is learned- empathy is also inborn, a part of the emotional architecture of human beings. I see in my granddaughter the recognition that others have emotional needs, just as she does.
Since empathy can be learned, or cultivated – the following are some seeds for growing more empathy.
Having compassion for your self is an important skill. If you cannot acknowledge your own emotional vulnerability – it will be difficult to acknowledge others. Become aware of your emotions and allow yourself to be with those emotions with out censoring or voiding anything you feel. You can still hold yourself accountable for ACTIONS you take that may be acceptable or unacceptable to you – but let yourself be with your emotions.
Become aware of when you are and are not empathic
It is not possible for most of us to be compassionate at all times. Attending to when we are and when we are not compassionate is important. Who are the people and what are the situations that trigger a non-compassionate response? Attending to these triggers can help us understand where we need work to increase the capacity for compassion.
Attend to the compassion of others
Who do you know who is highly skilled in compassion? Can you observe how the compassion expert approaches situations? Even better, can you discuss with the compassion expert how they are able to stay focused on others needs in a situation where you would have gotten upset or frustrated? Observing and reflecting on effective models of empathy teaches powerful skills.
Stretch to be a bit more compassionate
Learn to take a breath before reacting to an emotional situation. Slowing down what seems like an automatic reaction is a first step to growing your compassion. See if you can make a guess as to what is triggering the other. Then “try on” the experience that you imagine for the other. It is not important that YOU would react the same way – but see if you can understand how the other has arrived at the emotion or action they did. Stretching to understand others, even if only a little bit, over time yields more empathy and compassion.
Practice validating others
Validation, acknowledging that the others reality makes sense, is an important and often overlooked part of empathy. Validation does not imply your agreement, rather that you recognize the way the other sees the world.
Michael Winters is a Psychologist in Houston focusing on marriage counseling and therapy. Michael received his PhD from the University of Memphis and has been practicing since 1991.