Some people are genetically inclined to be highly empathic or not. But, generally, we develop empathy as children, primarily through observing how others show it.
We may be on the receiving end of expressions of empathy and come to value it for the emotional benefits it had for us. Then we may show empathy ourselves and receive a positive response, such as praise or a smile, that reinforces our actions.
Some children are more fortunate than others with the number of episodes of empathy they observe and responses they receive for showing it.
So can we teach it to adults?
Many parents, health-care professionals, teachers, work supervisors and romantic partners would likely benefit from higher levels of empathy. As would anyone low in empathy for whatever reason.
Researchers have examined whether it is possible to increase cognitive, emotional and behavioural empathy through formal training. The methods used to teach someone to be more empathic are in many ways similar to those used to teach a new dance or how to give a good public speech.
Training typically includes four elements. The first part usually involves instruction about the benefits of showing empathy, how to identify emotions in others, how to feel those emotions and how to comment appropriately on them.
Next comes providing models of a person showing empathy in response to something another has said or done. The models can be live, on video or audio, or written. The situation optimally includes a positive response to the appropriate expression of empathy. The model might sometimes fail to show empathy and subsequently demonstrate a better response.
The third step is practice at showing empathy. This might occur live with the trainer or online in response to written or audio comments or actions of another person. The practice would include, when possible, showing empathy in real situations outside training sessions.
The last step involves constructive feedback on attempts to show empathy. The feedback typically includes praise when the person has reacted appropriately. It might also include information about how better to assess the emotion of another person or respond to the emotion.
Can we teach ourselves?
Adults can increase their empathy outside formal training. They can start by looking for signs others are experiencing an emotion. These can include facial expressions, postures, sighs, tone of voice, the content of what they say and their apparent situation.
If we imagine ourselves in the situation of another person, we take an additional step down the path of empathy. If we develop a hypothesis about the person’s emotion and gently present that to the other person, we may get valuable feedback and complete a self-instruction experience in empathy enhancement.
Of course, not everyone stands to gain from increasing empathy. Those in occupations that require dealing in an assertive or harsh manner with others might not benefit professionally. Consider the pressures on combat soldiers and police officers.
But for most people increasing empathy would have positive effects. Life provides opportunities for enhancing our own empathy. We just need to look for them.
– John Malouff