Emotional literacy and awareness of your own emotions are two great ways to become a more empathic person.
But, even with emotional intelligence and self-awareness, you can still fail to have real empathy if you hold on to bias and prejudice. A pre-conceived notion about who another person is may be the single biggest obstacle on the path to genuine empathy for them. Prejudice and bias are two major blind spots; to be more empathic, we need to take responsibility for them and commit to being more open-minded.
When people hear the words “prejudice and bias,” they may immediately think of things like racism or sexism, or jumping to conclusions about those with disabilities or people from a religion they don’t really understand. Can things like racism and sexism get in the way of genuine empathy? Of course. But the question of prejudice and empathy goes much, much deeper than this.
Let’s pause for a moment and look a little more closely at an interesting word: “kin.” You’ll see traces of it in English words such as akin (meaning “alike” or “similar in kind”), kinship, and kindred. This word has Indo-European roots and come from the old Germanic term meaning “to give birth to.” This root also branches from the old Norse term kundr (meaning child). Your kin, then, are those who are your family. The related Old Saxon term kunni refers to “kind, race, or tribe,” the Dutch kunne means “sex or gender,” and the Old English cynn means “family, race, kind, sort, rank, or nature.” So, we can understand the word to refer not just to blood family, but to tribes, community, and those who are similar to us.
But we can also see traces of this interesting word’s history in the two meanings of “kind”—a word used to depict compassion and kindness, as well as type, class, or family—“he lived with his kind.” The implication is that if someone is of your kind, you are kind to them.
Without going much deeper into the etymology, it should be clear that for human beings, there are powerful and ancient connections between sameness and compassion. It is a given that we are empathic toward our own kind and less so to those who are strange and unknown to us. Again, we see that for human beings, our emotional reality has a deep and ancient physiological basis—after all, isn’t maternal love the prototype for all other forms of human kindness? Don’t we speak of “brotherly love” as the highest and strongest bond between human beings?
To return to bias and prejudice, then: whenever we pre-judge (the root of the word “prejudice”!), we decide that a person is unlike ourselves. They’re not in our family or tribe. And when we do that, we deliberately close off a potential feeling of kinship and connection with them. While it is true that human beings belong to many different groups that are genuinely not alike, the mere fact of classing another human being into a category different from our own makes it harder to feel that they are our “kin”—in other words, to have empathy for them.
So, what does it really mean to remove bias and prejudice in yourself? It does not mean that we “live and let live” but rather that we make the choice to recognize the similarity between ourselves and others. In other words, empathy can only thrive when we remove barriers of difference and focus instead on affiliation. It is not true empathy to simply say, “Well, you do you,” or, “I guess you have the right to your opinion!” and shrug your shoulders. It is not true empathy to cling to differences and begrudgingly “tolerate” them.
Here’s a question: What is the single thing that unites every human being you will ever encounter? Across gender, race, class, income level, religion, culture, age . . .? The only thing that makes us all part of the same family is the fact that we are human beings. When we have bias and prejudice, we encounter a person primarily as a class or category, forgetting that we both belong to the bigger category: human beings.
So, we encounter someone and experience them not as a human being, but as a woman, or a Mormon, or a five-year-old, or a prisoner, or a cancer survivor, or a widow, or an Australian. We have our own preconceptions about what each of those categories means, so when we engage with that person, we are not actually engaging with the human being that they are, but instead with the stereotype that belongs to that category. Women are nurturing, prisoners are bad people, Australians all love surfing.
These categories may be a handy mental shortcut when dealing with the complexity of humankind, but at the same time, the stereotypes they create distance and undermine authentic connection with the real human being in front of you. Through these stereotyped filters, all the information we receive about that person is distorted.
For example, if a person sees a tiny infant wearing blue who is screaming, they may say, “Poor baby! Look how angry he is!” This response is colored by their assumptions and prejudices about gender. That same person may see the same baby screaming, but if the baby is wearing pink, they may instead say, “Poor baby! Look how scared she is!” In both cases, there is empathy, but it is distorted. What distorts it? Prejudice. Pre-judging what another’s experience is and what it means.
Of course, it would be foolish to expect anyone to operate in the world without some preconceived ideas about stable and persistent patterns of human behavior (for example, on the whole, women really are more nurturing than men). At the same time, wildly inaccurate biases and prejudices can be a serious roadblock to understanding another person’s unique, complex, and subtle inner world. In a way, prejudice is the very opposite of empathy.
In empathy, we can engage with another person in the spirit of, “Who are you? What is it like to be you?”
In prejudice and bias, we are not curious and we are not asking a question. Instead, we engage with another in the spirit of, “I already know who you are, and I know just what you’re like.”
Importantly, being empathic is not just about being kind. It’s about clear, accurate perception and genuine comprehension of another worldview. After all, many people are genuinely compassionate and want to be kind to others, but their fixed ideas of what that should look like still get in the way of genuine connection. Think about the example of a mother who keeps trying to “treat” her daughter by giving her spa days and beauty products as gifts.
The mother has preconceived ideas about what daughters are like and what they think, feel, and want. Because of her prejudice, she cannot see that from her daughter’s perspective, these things are not treats at all. The mother is kind without being empathic. Sadly, without empathy, she is missing out on an opportunity to be more deeply and authentically kind.
How to Tackle Your Own Biases and Prejudice
Yes, you do have them! Everybody does.
The difficult thing is that our most stubborn and unchallenged prejudices are the ones most likely to go unnoticed. You see an unassuming overweight old woman at the bus stop and have an automatic assumption about who she is. You never give her a second thought—but had you struck up a conversation with her, you would have realized that she is a legendary Hungarian concert pianist and can speak five languages.A:
Similarly, Harvard University’s now-famous “Implicit Association Test” is designed to reveal these knee-jerk unconscious responses and find out your true beliefs and perceptions. If you Google implicit.harvard.edu, you can take the test yourself—but be prepared to be surprised by the results!
The good news is that we acquired these prejudices and biases by the way we were brought up, by our cultural training, by exposure to the media, by the way we were educated, and in many cases, by our own personal history. This is good news because it means that prejudice is not a fact of life—we can change it.
Step 1: Acknowledge that You DO Have Bias
This goes beyond racism, sexism, and the like—you may have a whole host of prejudices about even seemingly small ways that people can differ. Think about your beliefs about those who didn’t go to college, those who listen to the kind of music you hate, those who grew up abroad . . . sometimes, we can be even more biased against people who are objectively most like us. For example, someone may feel an irrational hostility toward someone with the same but differently spelled name, or look down on those who speak their language but with a slightly different regional accent. Point is, it doesn’t have to be full-blown bigotry to count as prejudice!
Step 2: Expose Yourself to Difference
If your goal is to be a more empathic person, you need to accept the challenge of having to empathize with difference and not just with similarity. If you want to connect with people, you need to connect with them as they are, in all their strange and unfamiliar uniqueness!
Often, we decide who is in our group and who is out of it simply by habit and convention. We learn to assume that what we already know is good, and that what is unknown must be weird, bad, or threatening. But the best way to prove to yourself that this isn’t true is to keep on exposing yourself to difference. For example:
• If you always find yourself feeling hostile to and uncomfortable around homeless people, challenge yourself to volunteer for a few nights at a homeless shelter.
• If you notice that you have negative prejudice toward the opposite sex, consciously choose to read books, blogs, and articles by men/women, especially ones written from their unique point of view.
• If you suspect you’ve placed yourself in a bit of an echo chamber perspective-wise, deliberately seek out the opinions of those you disagree with. Do this in good faith and seek out the most intelligent arguments against your pet theories and beliefs.
• Try food, music, literature, and art from other cultures—bonus points if you can find material that shows you what you look like through the eyes of some other group!
Step 3: Connect and Find Common Ground
Our primitive monkey minds evolved to zoom in on potentially life-threatening differences in others. Counter this tendency by choosing instead to focus on what is common instead. When you meet a new employee at work, and she’s a dark-skinned woman wearing a colored head scarf, don’t immediately narrow in on these facts—instead, focus on the fact that she is, for example, the same age as you and, evidently, in the same line of work.
Even the most wildly different person you meet will always have something in common with you: They’re a human being. They feel all the same emotions as you do. At the very least, you can often connect with people over the very fact of your difference. Expat communities, for example, can often find commonality in the fact that they are all different from the locals. The fact they are different from one another is less important! Similarly, someone who is discriminated against because of their race may find a willing friend in someone who is discriminated against because of their religion—again, we see that the shared experience of human emotion shows us how alike we are, despite and even because of our differences.
The next time you meet someone who feels “other” to you, ask yourself to try to see what connects you both. Everyone loves cute animals, their families, and good food. Nobody likes advertising, horrible weather, or traffic. The commonality you find is unimportant; what matters is the state of empathy you create when you assume that there is something in common . . . you just haven’t discovered it yet.
Compassion—on the Other Person’s Terms
Everyone can agree that it’s a good thing to drop prejudice and bias—theoretically. But it’s important to realize that empathy is something we do, not an opinion we have or a nice intention we hold passively. Furthermore, the very meaning of compassion, kindness, and empathy changes depending on the recipient. Consider the following example.
Jamie thinks of himself as a likeable guy, an extrovert, and pretty switched on in the emotional intelligence department. However, he has trouble realizing that his desire to think of himself as a fair and good person is not quite the same as doing the hard work of being empathic in real life. Jamie has a new friend, Ed, who is on the autism spectrum. The two have a shared hobby and met at work.
One day, during after-work drinks with a group of colleagues, Jamie notices that Ed is sitting pretty quietly, unsmiling. Because he wants to be kind and compassionate (and also because, unconsciously, he wants to prove to everyone that he has no biases against those with disabilities!), he rushes to Ed’s aid. He tries to “cheer him up” and rope him into the conversation. He draws attention to Ed, remarking about how quiet he’s being and making obvious attempts to “bring him out of his shell” with jokes, questions, and pointed comments. He feels that, as the group’s extrovert, it would be kind to help Ed feel included.
However, after an hour of this dynamic playing out, Ed gets visibly upset and leaves, much to Jamie’s confusion.
Another colleague at the table says, “Jamie, you can’t be like that. You’ve got to just accept Ed for who he is.”
Jamie is hurt and perplexed. “But that’s exactly what I’m doing! Trying to include him. He was just sitting there all by himself.”
“Exactly. That’s how he is.”
Can you see what happened and why? Jamie was showing compassion—but compassion on his own terms. He treated Ed the way he—Jamie—would like to be treated. But the so-called Golden Rule ignores the fact that we are all different and want different things. Jamie was unable to have real empathy and see things from his friend’s point of view. If he had done so, he might have seen that for Ed, being left to socialize to the degree he felt comfortable was precisely how he would most feel included in the group.
Sometimes, our very attachment to the idea of ourselves as empathic, kind, and warmhearted is precisely the thing that gets in the way of us seeing what other people actually want. Call it a positive prejudice! When we practice empathy, we go into another person’s world—all the way in! We don’t just look at them through the lens of our own values and systems of meaning. We look at them as they look at themselves according to their worldview. From Jamie’s perspective, being a little aloof and quiet is a big problem requiring intervention. But from Ed’s point of view, it’s a comfortable default.
When you practice empathy with the people around you, be mindful of the fact that empathy is not for or about you—it’s for and about the other person. You are not just curious about the contents of their heart and mind, but the very way they construct their reality. To make the mindset shift to genuine empathy, stop asking the question, “How do I see this person?” and start asking, “How does this person see themselves?” No matter who you’re with, you will instantly dissolve any pre-existing biases, assumptions, and prejudices, and simply see the unique person in front of you. On their own terms.
The Fine Art of Perspective-Taking
To take on another’s perspective is to have empathy with them, plain and simple.y”—Patricia Moore. During:
But she went a step further and wore glasses that clouded her vision, earplugs that made her slightly deaf, and a series of braces, splints, and bandages that impaired her movement. She didn’t just want to imagine what it felt like to be old—she wanted to feel it firsthand. In fact, the insights she gained during her experiments led to the creation of easy-open cereal packs and specially designed kitchen implements, i.e., “empathic design.”lar way, George Orwell, famed:
In a previous section, we cultivated empathy for another using three different lenses of our own, leading to cognitive, emotional, or compassionate empathy. But we can turn this around and consider the same process from another person’s perspective. Perspective-taking is a whole set of skills that includes:
• Understanding someone's perceptual assessment of reality
• Understanding someone’s cognitive appraisal of reality
• Understanding someone’s affective or emotional response to that reality
The “lens” through which any of us see the world is made of different components. When we wish to take on another person’s perspective, we need to consider their position on all these multiple levels (what’s more, we need to consider how our perspective influences our ability to see their perspective!).
Imagine the following scenario. An old school friend comes to visit you in your new city to meet your new spouse and catch up after more than a decade of not being in touch. You mention more than once in passing how glad you are to have moved to where you now live, how happy you are there, and how much nicer life is. One night, while everyone is enjoying a drink together in your new home, you raise your glass and give a toast, saying, “Here’s to leveling up . . . and getting the hell out of (your old hometown)!” Everyone laughs and toasts, but then your old school friend says bitterly, “Hear, hear, and do us all a favor and don’t come back,” before slamming down their glass and stomping out.
What’s happened here? You were having a nice time with friends, in a celebratory mood, and expressing pride and gratitude for all the good things life has sent your way. But a little empathy would show you that this is not what your old school friend saw. You take the time to set aside your own experience and go into theirs instead. Instead of stubbornly sticking to your own appraisal of events (“What’s his problem, anyway?”), you switch perspectives and go into his.
And the moment you do, you realize that it is in fact you who has been unreasonable. Your friend came to visit you at great expense—in fact, they’ve barely ever left your hometown at all since it’s not financially viable for them. They’ve stayed in the same neighborhood you both grew up in—the neighborhood that you now so readily denigrate.
Perceptual perspective: They see that you have more money, are happier, and are feeling confident in your new life. They see others praising and admiring you. Though you may feel that you worked hard for your success, they may see something different—that you are a little judgmental about where you came from and are now superior to the good people you grew up with. They also see that you seem to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge the obvious difference in your lives and the awkward position the visit puts them in.
Cognitive perspective: They may have many thoughts about this dynamic. “He thinks he’s better than me.” “He invited me over here so he can rub it all in my face and show off.”
Affective perspective: Beneath all this, understandably, is shame, embarrassment, resentment, and all the feelings you’d expect if you believed that someone judged you unfairly. Even further beneath that, you can imagine a genuine feeling of sadness—weren’t you once really close friends? In trashing your hometown, are you also saying that your friendship was worthless, too . . .?
Put all together, this perspective more than explains your friend’s reaction. When you pause and literally try to imagine what it must be like for him from his point of view, not only does his behavior suddenly make more sense, but you instantly get a sense of how to make peace again and how to smooth over the conflict. That’s because you get an inkling of what you look like to him.
You talk to him, you listen, you apologize, and you try to understand his perspective without forcing your own (“You’re taking things personally. I never meant any offense!”). Gradually, bridges are mended and hurt feelings forgotten.
As you can see, empathy is not just useful for supporting someone in difficulty—it’s also the only real way to dissolve tensions, settle grudges and misunderstandings, and find mutually satisfying solutions to tricky problems. In this case, it also comes to our aid when we have been thoughtless ourselves and need a little empathy to put things right.
Two Essential Ingredients for Walking in Another’s Shoes
Ingredient 1: Know exactly what YOU’RE bringing to the table.
To thoroughly comprehend another person’s perspective, you need to take responsibility for your own. To remove your own assumptions, biases, and interpretations from the big picture, you need to know what they are in the first place!
More than this, though, it’s worth understanding the why of how you arrived at your particular perspective (and this includes the perceptive, cognitive, and affective components, as described above). The more comfortable you are with understanding the mechanics of your own position, the better able you’ll be to understand those of another.
For example, if you grew up in a major city and your upbringing contained plenty of people, bustle, and culture but very little in the way of plant or animal life, you may discover that this background influences your opinion on pet ownership, on what counts as tidy, and on the ethics of factory farming. Because you can grasp these links, you are all the more able to see how someone who grew up on a farm may have markedly different opinions on all three of those topics.
In the above example, you may discover that you have a particular cognitive perspective that goes like this: “If I didn’t intend to harm anyone, then I shouldn’t be held responsible for any harm that happens.” Only by being aware that you think this way can you consciously set it aside so you don’t get defensive and think that your friend is blaming or attacking you when you were unaware of the hurt you caused.
Every time you are engaging with someone, ask what assumptions and beliefs you’re bringing to the encounter. Where did they come from? How was that process different for the person in front of you? How are the two interacting?
Ingredient 2: Learn to take a back seat and let others lead.
One of the biggest ways people tend to allow their own perspectives to dominate interactions is in their desire to lead. We can sometimes derail or dominate when we want to steer the conversation toward ourselves or the topic we’re most comfortable with.
But that’s not all. If you’re a very literal and practically minded person who views everything through the lens of the scientific method, for example, you might be tempted to always shape and influence conversations in that direction. If the person in front of you is trying to be lighthearted and a little irreverent, your constant desire to be precise, rational, and serious is going to be felt as a misunderstanding and deeply un-empathic.
Empathy is not just a question of allowing others to lead in terms of conversational content. It’s also about allowing them to determine the style, tone, and pace of conversation. Think of it in terms of movie genres—some people want a romantic comedy; others want a gritty war documentary. The very same events can be told in either genre. If you are truly empathic, you’re not just listening to and reflecting the what, but the how. The other person takes the lead, and you follow happily.
Perspective-Taking, Step by Step
Let’s slow down the whole process of perspective-taking and look at each step in detail.
Step 1: Notice the social situation you’re in and the people around you.
Step 2: Become aware of the fact that you are thinking about them, and they are thinking about you.
Step 3: Think about why the other people are in this particular social situation; what they might be perceiving, thinking, and feeling; and what their potential motivations or overall intentions might be. How are they behaving? How and why are they behaving this way?
Step 4: Become aware of the fact that these other people may be having the same thoughts about you. They may also be trying to understand your thoughts, feelings, and motivations in this social situation.
Step 5: If necessary, adjust what you are doing or saying to influence the way that other people may be thinking and feeling about you. At the same time, be aware that other people may be doing precisely the same thing. Realize that you are both doing this in line with your perceptions and motivations.
The above five steps can be visualized as a grid or matrix, containing everything that an empathic person can become aware of:
• What the other person thinks about themselves
• What the other person thinks about you
• What you think about them
• What you think about yourself
Let’s take a look at an example and how using this grid or the five steps can help you gain a more multidimensional understanding of a social situation. Imagine you are tasked with interviewing a new employee for your division. This is not your usual role, and you’ve never interviewed anyone before—to be frank, you’re a bit nervous. However, a little empathy (before, during, and after the interview) can put everyone’s anxieties at ease and make the entire interaction flow a little more smoothly.
• What the candidate thinks about themselves – Putting yourself in their shoes, you predict they’ll be nervous and hyper-alert (who wouldn’t?) and may potentially be feeling somewhat uncertain about themselves. When you meet, you see that the candidate actually seems to be downplaying their resume highlights.
• What the candidate thinks about you – Beforehand, you try to imagine what people generally think of their interviewers: that they’re cold and judgmental, or perhaps that they’re extremely knowledgeable and have high standards. The candidate likely thinks they have to impress you, and they don’t know how many other people you’ve interviewed for this position. You also realize that this candidate actually has no idea that you haven’t interviewed anyone before, and has not even considered the fact that you also find the process anxiety-provoking!
• What you think about the candidate – When you meet, you find them likeable and well-qualified, if a little unconfident. But you weigh up these perceptions with everything else you know about the situation.
• What you think about yourself – You realize that you’re nervous and worried about doing a good job, but on reflection, this allows you to empathize with the candidate, who is probably having similar feelings. Though nervous, you do have faith that you can conduct the interview properly.
In this situation, your main goal is to get the best possible idea of the candidate’s suitability for the job. Their goal is to put their best foot forward and convince you to pick them.
Using empathy to take various perspectives on the situation, you decide on a course of action: You deliberately work to come across as friendly, non-judgmental, and casual. You openly admit that this is not your usual role and that you’ve never interviewed people before. You do this to put yourself at ease, but also to address fears from the candidate’s perspective. If they can relax in your company and see that you’re not really a stern and serious judge, they may be able to more confidently share their achievements.
In this example, empathy radiates throughout the social situation—by switching perspectives, you bring compassion and understanding to the entire interaction, showing empathy to both yourself and the other person.
Perspective-taking is also a rock-solid way of smoothing over conflict or disagreement. If you’re mulling over a point of contention, take a moment to analyze the situation in private, fleshing out as many perspectives as you can. Ask yourself:
What are your goals here and what are the other person’s? Are they in alignment or clashing?
What assumptions might you be making? What about them?
How have each of you behaved, and can you find out the root cause of each choice?
How does the conflict look from their perspective? How do you think they are discerning the situation as seen through their own perceptual filters?
What exactly is bothering you most about the conflict? How does it compare to their position?
Perspective-taking usually allows one of two things to happen: either the additional empathy helps you appreciate their perspective and the conflict dissolves, or you realize that with too many assumptions and unknowns, the only way forward is sincere communication so that everyone is on the same page. If we’re honest, most of the time, our conflicts arise when we have not even communicated, let alone miscommunicated! The conflict lies, in other words, purely in the fact that each party does not understand the perspective of the other.
Your perspective is a thing of wonder—it is what makes you unique and what brings color, depth, and meaning to your world. However, it’s also a potential source of isolation, conflict, and misunderstanding if you forget that it is only that—a perspective—and that other people are in possession of points of view that are just as unique, colorful, deep, and meaningful as your own.
Before we conclude our chapter, here are a few practical exercises to fine-tune the skill of perspective-taking.
• Try a creative writing exercise where you sit down and write, but from the other person’s perspective. Use “I” statements and explore their perceptions, thoughts, feelings, intentions, fears, and indeed how they perceive you and the situation at large. This can be a seriously eye-opening practice.
• Watch a movie or TV show and pick a character to identify with. As you watch, try to imagine what they are thinking and feeling. Try to understand why they behave as they do, and what the bigger story feels like from their frame of reference. Can you predict what they might do or say next, given their perspective? You could watch the same episode again but focus on another character—how does that change things?
• Search online or in magazines for random pictures of people in different situations. Take turns to inhabit the perspective of each person in the picture. Create a story behind the picture and explore each person’s perspective on that story.
• Alternatively, indulge in a bit of “people watching” in a public place and do the same by observing groups of people in social situations. As though you were switching camera lenses, try on the situation from different people’s points of view. You could also just pick a person in a crowd and ask yourself broadly, “What’s it like to be such a person?”
• Try “reverse storytelling.” This is when you observe someone’s behavior/reaction/words and try to think of potential reasons that could have caused that outcome. As you identify causes, keep going further back to identify causes for those causes, and so on.
• Your perspective on life is what makes you unique, but it can also be a source of isolation, misunderstanding, and conflict.
• A pre-conceived notion about who another person is may be the single biggest obstacle on the path to genuine empathy for them. Getting rid of bias is about more than guarding against sexism or racism and more about consciously choosing to remember that all people are united in their shared humanity.
• Prejudice is pre-judging what another’s experience is and what it means. Stereotypes and categories undermine authentic connections with others. Bias is a filter through which all the information we receive about that person is distorted. Being empathic is not just about being kind. It’s about clear, accurate perception and genuine comprehension of another worldview.
• To tackle your own prejudice, first acknowledge that you do have it! Consciously choose to expose yourself to the unfamiliar and challenge yourself to empathize not just with similarity but with difference. Assume there is always a common ground between you and another individual and actively choose to focus on that instead of what is different.
• Forget the Golden Rule and remember that the very meaning of compassion, kindness, and empathy changes depending on the recipient. Show people compassion, but on their terms, not yours.
• In interactions, try to explore: what the other person thinks about themselves, what the other person thinks about you, what you think about them, and what you think about yourself. This can be especially helpful during a conflict.