10 ways to build empathy
In this blog post, UK Chief Commissioner Tim Kidd and Deputy UK Chief Commissioner Kester Sharpe give their tips for developing empathy.
Empathy is the ability to share the feelings of others; to listen deeply to other views without judgement and make connections with people at an emotional level. This is a skill that is as valuable in your home and social life as it is in your school or workplace. It leads to better conversations, better understanding and brings people together.
A new YouGov poll suggests that the majority of British adults believe there is less empathy in UK society compared to just 12 months ago. So how can we all develop this critical skill?
A really good starting point for us in Scouting is that volunteering is a great way to build empathy! Understanding other people’s circumstances, hopes and aspirations is classic way to develop the skill of empathy, and of course, you will invariably find you gain more than give.
1. Read more
Engaging imaginatively with a novel, placing yourself in the story with the characters, is a brilliant way to build empathy. Which characters do you relate to most? The more you invest in them, the more rewarding the book is likely to be. Need a great place to start? Why not read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Atticus Finch gives an invaluable piece of advice to his daughter, appropriately named Scout: ‘If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’
2. Talk with different kinds of people
Mixing with people who are different from you helps develop your understanding of other people’s lives. In the Scouts, we bring people together from a huge variety of backgrounds. When we work together towards common goals, we break down barriers and find ways to get along better with people.
3. Ask better questions
When we meet with people, we often have superficial conversations. Asking interesting, open questions while respecting people’s privacy and dignity can lead to more rewarding experience and better understanding. Showing that you are open to listening without judgement also encourages people to open up with you.
4. Question your assumptions
You might hold fixed views about certain subjects and kinds of people. How recently have you tested these assumptions? How did you form this view? Speaking with people first hand rather than relying on second hand reports can give you a completely different view of things.
Immersing yourself in a completely different culture can transform your world view and really develop your powers of empathy. Talk to new people and watch how they treat each other. According to Anthony Bourdain, a good thing to do is to find out how other people live, eat and cook. ‘Learn from them – wherever you go.’
6. Get curious
No matter how educated we are, it’s amazing how little we know. Pick a subject or place and discover as much as you can about it. You’re bound to come away looking at people and the world in a different way.
7. Ask yourselves some tough questions
Are you always fair and honest with yourself and others? When was the last time you stopped and asked someone for their view or how they feel? Do you really listen to people, or do you just wait your turn to speak? Answering these questions truthfully will tell you a lot about yourself.
8. Be humble
You might be confident, smart and successful. But there will still be lessons in life you haven’t yet learnt, things you haven’t yet seen and mistakes you haven’t yet made. Have the humility and courage to accept there are things you don’t know and that life is a journey of learning.
9. Don’t just hear – listen
Why not try this an experiment? Pick a day and decide that on this day, you are going to do little but listen. Ask a question by all means, but don’t interrupt or be tempted to take over the conversation with stories from your life or advice. Give people the time and space to speak, ensuring they know you are not just hearing but actively listening.
10. Speak with someone you’ve never spoken to before
There must be at least one person at your place of work, school or everyday life who you see every day but never speak to. Why not engage with that person in a polite and respectful way and find out a little about them? They could be a friend you haven’t met yet.