Everyone has the ability to be empathetic

Many species display empathy in some form or another, but primates – especially us humans – have a more sophisticated capacity for empathy due to our large working memory and more developed neocortex. Have you ever winced when you saw another person take a hard fall? That is the result of mirror neurons, the discovery of which fundamentally altered our understanding of empathy. Since then, neuroscientists have identified what they call an “empathy circuit” in our brains. If this circuit is damaged in any way, it can curtail our ability to understand what others are feeling, all the while leaving our capacity for logic intact.

Empathy is not a “you either have it, or you don’t” quality in human beings. Unless you’ve experienced a particular brain trauma, you have the ability to be empathetic.

On a personal level, empathetic people tend to be more generous and concerned with people’s welfare, and tend to have happier relationships and greater well-being. But what exactly is it? Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Empathy is Important at Work

Yet empathy doesn’t only come in handy when listening to your best friend explain his woes. It’s actually very important for work, both for leaders and team members alike. Reports state a correlation between empathy and increased sales, high performing managers of product development teams, and increased performances. Studies have also shown that empathy improves leadership ability and facilitates effective communication.

How could this be? Well, if you think about how fundamental relationship building is to almost every aspect of business and life.

So how do we exercise and strengthen our empathy muscle, here are some practical tips.

1. Listen and don’t interrupt.
Truly listening can be a challenge. Sometimes we are just waiting to give our own opinion.

2. Be fully present when you are with people and tune in to non-verbal communication.
You can start being fully present by putting away your phone, not checking your email, and not accepting calls while you are interacting with someone.

3. Smile at people.
Smiles are literally contagious. The part of your brain responsible for this facial expression is the cingulate cortex, which is an unconscious automatic response area. Since smiling releases feel good chemicals in the brain, activates reward centers, and increases health.

4. Use people’s names and encourage them.
Encouraging people can be as simple as nodding at them while they talk to you. This simple gesture, along with using their name, can make great impact on relationship building.

5. Try to empathise with people whose beliefs you don’t share.
This tip might particularly come in handy during an election year! One good way to approach differing beliefs in conversation is to say, “That’s interesting, how did you develop that idea?” or “Tell me more.”

6. Give genuine recognition.
Move beyond “great job” and give specific compliments like, “Your did really fantastic work on this difficult project” or “Thank you. I would have missed that information if you hadn’t pointed it out.”

7. Challenge yourself to a deeper conversation.
Understanding a person’s point of view or personal challenges requires conversation that moves past the weather. This doesn’t mean you should ask that person about highly personal matters. Start by sharing a little more of your own experiences and perspectives and see if they follow suit.

It’s easy to see why empathy is an important part of effective relationships and developing it further will enhance your life in wonderful ways.