The human species has evolved with two seemingly opposing traits: selfishness, our personal defence mechanism; and sociability, our group protective mechanism. We have learned to keep these opposing traits in balance within tightly knit groups, but it is trickier to achieve when it comes to inter-group rivalries. One reason for this is a lack of empathy with others who, on the surface, do not conform to ideas or behaviours that we consider acceptable or normal according to our experience. Our selfish gene inclines us to introspection, looking within ourselves for fulfilment, limiting our beliefs, habits and prejudices to those we have acquired by contact with our limited social circle, people like us. Those who are not “us” are too easily seen as competitors or enemies because our ability to empathise with them is repressed or underdeveloped.
Yet we know that all humans are alike in some ways. We share basic needs for love, security and happiness and, if we develop our ability to empathise, it becomes possible to maximise the fulfilment of these dreams for all people. But because empathy is too often limited by our tendency to introspection, we need to work at developing what Roman Krznaric calls “outrospection” and expand our horizons. To help us on our way, Krznaric has listed six “habits of highly empathic people”.
- Cultivate curiosity about strangers. Don’t simply dismiss them as “strange”, get to know something about them and discover what makes them different from you. You can do this by learning indirectly but direct contact is more effective.
- Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities. Instead of dwelling on the differences between you and A. N. Other, find out what you have in common. There is always something; remember we are all human.
- Get into ‘extreme sport’. Not literally, but in the sense of experimenting. Try, for example, going about with your eyes closed for a while so as to experience for yourself the disadvantages of blindness.
- Practise the art of conversation. Listening and talking can lead to the exchange of views and ideas. Not listening leads to assumptions, misunderstandings and worse.
- Inspire mass action and social change. Things don’t have to remain the way they are – especially if they are harmful. Think about the climate crisis, for example, and engage with the solution by talking about it and making personal contributions in your daily routines.
- Develop an ambitious imagination. Don’t forget, you can empathise with anyone – even “greedy” bankers! Don’t limit yourself to just feeling sorry for down-and-outs!
I believe that the recent changes are the beginning of many more and a shift from instrospection to outrospection will benefit us all to help us collaborate in saving ourselves, other living things and our planet. And the good news is that empathy is good for us. It helps with creativity, relationships, bonds and social change.
George Orwell, a pioneer in walking in others’ shoes did so, literally, before writing his seminal novel Down and Out in London and Paris which is worth a read – or a re-read!