Empathy Requires Effort, So Keep Some Energy For It
Empathy is vital for human relationships to flourish, for leaders to lead well, for coaches and therapists to help, for parents and their young offspring to form a healthy attachment. And yet, the people in your life may be trying to avoid it. How often do you feel that your partner completely lacks empathy? Or that your adult children just don’t seem to care anymore? Or that the CEO is completely out of touch with what is happening at the grass roots level of your organisation? Well, new research using 11 studies with data from 1,204 participants in total suggests that, when given the choice, people avoid empathy as if it is not worth the effort, because they simply find it too effortful (Cameron et al., 2019). People in the study tended to avoid empathy than choose to do it and when they were manipulated into thinking they were really efficient at empathy, they more often chose to be empathic rather than avoid it. The research also highlighted that participants found empathy over a longer period more of an effort than over a shorter period, again pointing to the discovery that we avoid empathy because of the cognitive demand it puts on us.
So empathy requires effort and part of this demand on our energy is having to deduce another person’s thoughts and feelings, and make inferences about their situation. But another part of this effort may come from the fact that we make ourselves vulnerable when we empathise because we may get it wrong and feel foolish within ourselves or invite anger from the other party. Both create discomfort and, depending on your mental health at the time, could knock your confidence, self-esteem, self-image and/or resilience.
Now, of course, we all vary in our ability to be empathic; the brains of psychopaths fail to show empathy for others and actually demonstrate pleasure regions become activated when thinking about others experiencing pain, but for ‘healthy’ brains, we undoubtedly come across people who are better at empathy than others. These are the people who make great leaders, coaches, therapists, teachers, writers, charity workers, and so on. So how do you improve your ability to be empathic? Below are four easy to implement, helpful strategies.
Four Tips for Improving Empathy
Every day you should schedule in some me-time where you can be alone and do whatever you want to do, as you want to do it. This allows you to rebuild your resilience, mental clarity and energy for interacting (empathically) with other people. If you find you have a short fuse with people for no reason or struggle to communicate well with them even though you truly want to, it may be that you need some time out to rest and recharge. It can be helpful to do this at the end of your working day, before time with your partner, family or friends, or if you are going to be having an important meeting in the afternoon, have some time out during your lunch break (or just some time beforehand if you are self-employed) to calm your brain and body down. Sounds and scenes of nature can calm you down physiologically, brisk walking can be great for dispelling tension, and mindfulness mediation increases compassion for others and self-compassion, reduces stress and more.
Don’t waste energy
If you are feeling drained of energy every day or most days, where have you spent that energy and was it all energy well spent? Think about where you’re wasting energy that you could put to better use for your all important interactions at work or in your personal life (meeting with the boss, quality time with your spouse, fun time with the children, etc).
- Recoup some of that drained energy by making fewer insignificant decisions such as what to wear, which workout to use, or what to eat by having a plan worked out for each well in advance.
- Recoup some of that wasted energy by spending less time on social media that goes above and beyond what might be necessary for career and connection goals. Remember you can continue processing social media related thoughts well after you have switched the apps off.
- Recoup some of that wasted energy you have spent on gossiping or reading tabloid news.
- Stop doing the things that are draining your energy by making you feel deflated such as, for example, reading/watching the news/social media/listening to negative colleagues moaning all the time, etc.
In Happy Relationships I mention how being present is a core communication skill because it allows you to know exactly what the situation in hand is, what the other person is trying to say right now with their words and non-verbal communication, not what you think they are trying to say based on three past conversations that may now be irrelevant and unhelpful. It also allows your brain to capture all important information that will allow your subconscious mind to intuitively inform you of any inconsistencies in what people are saying verbally and non-verbally so that you can get to the bottom of the truth, whether within one hour, one week or one year. Better late than never if they’re unhappy and need your attentiveness to realise so that you can help them and better late than never if they’re cheating and keep denying there are any problems or affairs when repeatedly asked.
Ask them and yourself, questions
Ask the other person questions to help you empathise such as:
- What emotions are you feeling? (Emotions help us to work out the thoughts that are preceding them.)
- What would your ideal outcome be?
- What was your motivation behind saying/doing that to your friend/mother/employee…?
Ask yourself questions to help you empathise such as:
- What is their non-verbal communication telling me about how they feel?
- What can I do to help them feel better?
- What can I do to help them achieve what they want in this situation?
- What emotions is their body language conveying?
If you care, you’ll try. If you don’t care to try, then it may be time for a serious conversation with yourself or someone else.
Cameron, C. D., Hutcherson, C. A., Ferguson, A. M., Scheffer, J. A., Hadjiandreou, E., & Inzlicht, M. (2019). Empathy is hard work: People choose to avoid empathy because of its cognitive costs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(6), 962–976. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000595