Life is so loud and distracting it has become difficult to shut out the noise, tune into the signals you are picking up from someone, and separate what you sense from your judgments and interpretation. The less we are aware in the moment, the harder it is to discern other people’s feelings and intentions.
Yet empathy is critical to establishing healthy relationships and developing social and leadership skills.
Your brain is naturally empathetic. You have mirror neurons which trigger you to mirror behaviors and match, or at least discern, emotional reactions without thinking. These neurons exist as a part of our fundamental needs for social connection and acceptance. Mirror neurons might also be tied into our protective mechanisms; you automatically tune into people’s emotions, movements, and intentions to ensure your safety.
There is still a debate on the primary purpose of mirror neurons but the gift they give us is the potential for empathy.
Mirror neurons give you the capacity to “step into another’s shoes.” According to Dr. Keysers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, when you see a spider crawling up someone’s leg, you feel a creepy sensation. Similarly, when you observe someone reach out to a friend and they are pushed away, your brain registers the sensation of rejection. When you watch an athlete get hurt or a couple embrace on television, you feel their emotions as if you are there. Social emotions like guilt, shame, pride, and embarrassment can be experienced by watching others.
When with others, you are also picking up emotional signals not only with your eyes, but also with your heart and gut. Your heart and gut then send signals to your brain to decipher what you sense.
However, if you are using your cognitive brain to think about the past, the future, or your email, you are not connecting to your emotional brain. You suppress your empathy to attend to a greater priority.
French philosopher Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,”To increase your empathy, you have to both control your wandering mind and strengthen your capacity to empathize through practice. Here’s how:
Take time out of your busy schedule each day to practice increasing your empathy. Commit to at least two sessions of face-to-face, other-focused listening each day you are with people. Also, spend 30 minutes a day watching people in meetings or social settings where you don’t have to talk much and see what you pick up.
Final note: Empathy is not the same as emotional contagion where you take on the emotions of another. Empathy is where you receive what another is feeling and cognitively label the emotion so you might understand. Then it is good practice to seek to understand their experience by asking if what you are sensing is correct.
As a human, you have empathy. You need to choose to be present, and willing to believe what you are sensing. Boost your empathy to strengthen your relationships and improve your coaching, leadership, and relationship skills.
With over 36 years of coaching experience, Dr Marcia Reynolds became one of the first 25 people in the world to become a ICF Master Certified Coach. She was also one of the first 25 people to join the Profitable Leadership Coaching Network. If you enjoyed this article, do visit our blog to read more articles by Dr Reynolds, our founder Tony Latimer and many other coaches on our network.
For more information about Dr Marcia Reynolds, please visit her website.
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