I have always had a keen, almost unhealthy interest in psychopaths. I studied forensic psychology and while my past professional interest has mostly been helping victims of crime, I couldn’t help feeling an abundance of morbid fascination for this small, incomprehensible cohort of people who seem to lack remorse, moral compass and compassion. They lack empathy.
The truth is, they are not the only group in the general population which lacks empathy. This is e.g. also the case in a lot of types of autism as well. The crucial difference between the two groups, is that psychopaths know what is logically right and what is wrong, but can’t feel the difference. Autistic people however, are exactly the opposite: they feel what is right and what is wrong, but can’t always express this logically*.
Having read extensively about empathy in groups of people that don’t seem to have the ability to develop it, I have come to the conclusion that there is no excuse for the rest of us not developing it, or at least using it in our day-to-day interactions. Let’s be clear: most of you reading this blog, are not likely to be psychopaths or someone suffering from any type of syndrome which makes it almost impossible to develop empathy. You are however very likely to belong to the big majority of the population who can develop empathy and apply it.
Long time ago, I wrote my university essay on the topic of emotional intelligence. I learned that unlike cognitive intelligence (IQ), it is a largely learned skill and something that can be developed through training and practice. This is exactly the case with empathy, which is at the core of what constitutes emotional intelligence.
Speaking from personal experience, developing and maintaining empathy in my day-to-day dealings and personal relationships has been an ongoing struggle, which only improved after years of self-awareness and working on my shortcomings. I still find from time to time having to remind myself to be more empathetic when I fail to rise to the occasion. This has required me accepting that empathy is something that needs to be worked on in the first place. My intention is to show empathy at all times, and when I sometimes fail to do so, self-introspection has allowed me to accept and pledge to do better next time.
There is no doubt in my mind that we are currently living in a world which needs more empathy and compassion. Millions of people are living in conditions of poverty and unemployment as a result of the covid-19 crisis is reaching critically high levels. Thousands have been directly and indirectly hit by the virus itself. In the months and years to come, our ability to show empathy and understanding with a wide variety of people, will be key to us returning to some sort of new reality and accepting that people will need time and space to adapt to it.
If you are struggling to develop empathy in your regular interactions, and are willing to do something about this, the tips below will help you to make a good head start. The issue often starts with our intentions. While these are often genuine and not meant to harm, they don’t help us to create empathy. Start by deciding to better connect with other people. Show genuine interest in them. Make a commitment to listen and understand rather than trying to be understood.
You might be anxious to be heard and understood, as you feel you have been misunderstood in the past. In order to avoid talking over others in an attempt to ensure this doesn’t happen again, improve your communication. NLP principles tell us that people are responsible for their own communication. If your message doesn’t come across as it should, then it’s in your hand to adapt it so that the recipient understands what you want to communicate.
If you don’t understand what others are communicating to you, ask questions. Make the person feel that you really care. Don’t judge. People hate The Advice. Instead, they just want to be heard, just like you. How often do we have the opportunity in today’s hectic society to be listened to, to feel that someone genuinely cares? Not as often as we should. But maybe the lockdown and current situation which forces us to rethink and evaluate our lives, is a good opportunity for an empathy restart.
Lastly commit to continue working on your empathy skills. In our day-to-day lives it is not possible, nor desirable to feel constant empathy with everyone and everything around us. It is however possible, and more than desirable, to decide to improve our empathy to those we care most about. So practice on a daily basis. Acknowledge where you perhaps haven’t shown as much empathy as you should, and decide to do better next time.
Empathy is not optional. It is a crucial skill which has played a vital part in human evolution. It has been at least equally important for survival as selfishness has, because it has allowed us to connect with others into groups and achieve much more than we would have on our own. Tolerating and understanding individual intra-group differences and sacrificing them for the overarching group aims, has been extremely important in the development of our societies to what they have become. It is now a good time to acknowledge empathy as the vital ingredient to improve our communities and daily reality it truly is.
Kostas The Coach is a Psychologist, Life and Small Business Coach and NLP Practitioner based in Llantwit Major, Wales. I help people of various backgrounds find the ideal intersection between profit, joy and values in their lives, and I assist businesses to grow sustainably while remaining aligned to their why.
If any of the topics discussed here has intrigued you, I would love to hear your thoughts. You can email me on Kostasthecoach@gmail.com or contact me via telephone or SMS on 07725653870.
* For further reading on how a lack of empathy is expressed differently in psychopaths and people with autistic syndroms, as well as the importance of empathy in general, I recommend the following book: Simon Baron-Cohen (2011): Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness, London: Penguin Books.