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More and more, we live in bubbles. Most of us are surrounded by people who look like us, vote like us, earn like us, spend money like us, have educations like us and worship like us.
The result is an empathy deficit, and it’s at the root of many of our biggest problems. It’s because of how homogeneous people’s social circles have become, and also because humans naturally hold biases. But researchers have discovered that far from being an immutable trait, empathy can be developed.
So what is empathy? It’s understanding how others feel and being compassionate toward them. It happens when two parts of the brain work together, neuroscientists say — the emotional center perceives the feelings of others and the cognitive center tries to understand why they feel that way and how we can be helpful to them.
Empathy makes people better managers and workers, and better family members and friends. But it’s bigger than just its personal effect. We’re all in this together, and researchers say that connection and compassion are crucial to a sustainable and humane future.
Don’t just stand in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, but take a walk in them.
Attend someone else’s church, mosque, synagogue or other house of worship for a few weeks while they attend yours, or visit a village in a developing country and volunteer. Spend time in a new neighborhood, or strike up a conversation with a homeless person in your community.
Working on a project with other people reinforces everyone’s individual expertise and humanity, and minimizes the differences that can divide people.
We’re all biased. Acknowledging that is the first step. The second step is taking action to overcome it.
Bias is a natural part of the human condition. This is adaptive for us to take mental shortcuts and make conclusions about the people around us. Actively working to combat that is what matters.
The flip side of bias is privilege. Bias puts certain groups of people at a disadvantage in our society, while privilege puts other groups at an advantage.
Your privileges are things that give you special status that you didn’t earn and don’t necessarily realize you benefit from. One example is when white people, unlike African-Americans, don’t worry about police violence during a routine traffic stop. Another is when someone raised with enough money has never thought about whether they can afford to eat.
One of the most important ways to confront bias and privilege in your life is to hear from others about their everyday lives, and consider how they’re different from yours.
It can be as simple as having lunch with a colleague and asking about their routines, she said. Maybe you’ll learn that they leave early to care for a family member or drive a different commute because they’re afraid of interacting with the police. Perhaps they never feel heard in meetings, or struggle to find a time and place to pump breast milk during the day.
Empathy should drive us to act compassionately toward others. The next step, after acknowledging your privileges, is to put them to use on behalf of groups who don’t have them.
Donate money to causes that help people in need or attend a rally in support of them.
Speak up when someone makes a discriminatory comment or interrupts. This is especially important to do when you’re not part of the community that is being undermined.
Reading is one of the best ways to open your mind to the experiences of others.
Reading literary fiction requires people to enter characters’ lives and minds – and by doing so, it increases people’s capacity to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, researchers at the New School have found. People who read literary fiction performed better on tests of empathy and emotional intelligence afterwards.
Read and watch first-person accounts of the experiences of others in magazines and newspapers, on social media and in podcasts and documentaries.
Ask children what they think characters in books or during imaginative play are feeling, based on their facial expressions or what’s happening to them in the story.
Don’t instruct your kid to say sorry. Instead, ask questions like: “How do you think he’s feeling? What could you do to help him feel better?”
Help your children name their emotions. When they’re crying in frustration or anger, or don’t want bedtime to come or school to start, give them words for their feelings.
Many parents, especially those who are white, try to avoid talking about race, gender identity, income level or other differences among people, believing that if they expose their children to diversity without making a big deal about it, their children will grow up without prejudice.
But research has shown that’s not true. Even preschoolers see differences – and also hold biases. When adults don’t talk to children about it, it can make it worse – children end up absorbing societal stereotypes or assuming it’s a taboo topic.
Researchers say children are aware of stereotypes by age 3. Counter them by encouraging children to do a wide variety of activities and spend time with a range of friends. Model the same in your own life — starting with sharing the chores at home.
Teach them what to do if they experience discrimination or see someone else experiencing it, and role play with them. Teach them to say, “Stop” or “That’s unkind,” or to stand next to the person who’s being targeted, or to find a trusted adult.
the Change My View subreddit is a discussion board with a twist. People have described it as the most civilized place on the internet, where people respectfully discuss controversial topics and are open to changing their minds.
The goal is not to be comfortable. It’s to stretch ourselves and expose ourselves to others’ points of view. You can compare it to yoga – getting comfortable by being uncomfortable. If you are comfortable, you probably aren’t doing it right.
If you’re uncomfortable with the topic of conversation, or if someone has told you that you said something that was offensive, the first step is to listen. Some common errors, experts say, are:
Use your body language to show that you’re open to listening: uncross your arms, lean slightly forward, and make eye contact.
Pay close attention to the speaker’s facial expressions and body language, which can convey more emotions than their words.
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