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Flexing Your Empathy Muscle

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

When was the last time you felt truly heard and seen by another person?

Who was the person who made you feel seen and heard, how did they listen and respond to you?

Chances are, that this person is a good empathy-practitioner. To me, empathy means paying attention, fully hearing what the other person has to say, understanding and not judging them for what they are thinking or feeling. In other words, empathy is putting myself in their shoes, imagining what it must be like to be them at this particular moment.

But that’s not all that empathy entails—one of the most important things that people who practice empathy do is putting their own egos (what they think, feel, believe, and hold dear) aside to make room for the other person to be heard. And that is the hard part!

None of us is born good at listening. We learn how to listen and how to show empathy. The good news about empathy is that it is like a muscle that you can exercise: the more you practice it, the better you get at it.

Here is simple advice on how to strengthen your empathy muscle, which I got from Alan Alda’s book on communication called “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?” You may know Alan Alda for his acting roles on TV and in the movies, but did you know that he also teaches scientists how to communicate about science to others by teaching me them theater improvisational games? And it works! They get better and better as they practice connecting with each other and this connection translates to their audience. That is empathy at work.

Alda says that empathy is the main thing that allows us to connect and communicate with one another—in our families, at work, with our teams, with our neighbors. Our world is crying out for empathy right now as we struggle to connect with one another on so many levels.

Here is Alda’s advice on how to practice your empathy muscle: every day, as you go about your day, notice someone you don’t know and think about what it is they may be feeling and thinking right there and then. In other words, what is their story right now? What is the cashier at the check-out counter feeling and thinking? Are they having a hard day? What is the person in front of you in line going through? What facial expressions do they have, what words are they saying, how are they behaving? This imagination will allow you connect with them, put yourself in their shoes. You may be correct in your guesses, you may not, but that is not the point. The point is to exercise your empathy muscle!

How will you change the world by practicing your empathy muscle?

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