A quick scroll through Instagram highlights the self-obsessed culture we currently live in, where flattering filters and quippy captions serve as the building blocks to our idealized selves.
In this new age of digital narcissism, Roman Krznaric argues we are losing our ability to empathise with others and, perhaps more importantly, we are less perturbed by this very notion. In his book, Empathy, he draws on over a decade’s research in an attempt to outline ‘the six habits of highly empathic people’.
Krznaric defines empathy as “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide [our own] actions.”
In the past, our primitive ancestors relied on this ability for cooperation and, ultimately, survival. Their brains developed ‘mirror neurons’ to help facilitate this process.
Put simply, mirror neurons allow our brains to mirror the state of other people. As Giacomo Rizzolatti, the Italian neurophysiologist, explains: “[they] allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation.” In other words, they allow us to experience a similar sensation in both doing and observing the same act.
To Krznaric, their existence points to a powerful idea: namely, we have evolved to be empathic creatures and that it is our responsibility to develop these tools that we naturally possess.
“In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way – and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.” – Bertrand Russell
Cultivating empathy is important for a variety of reasons.
At a social level, it tends to act as a driving force behind positive change. Krznaric highlights this when, in referring to contemporary issues, he writes: “there is an urgent need to harness the power of empathy to tackle these crises and bridge social divides.” Empathy, after all, is most powerful when embedded in a community ethos.
However, on a personal and perhaps more relatable level, Krznaric writes that empathy offers us an enormous opportunity to improve the quality of our everyday existence. He alludes to psychologists and wellbeing experts who suggest we gain more pleasure from acting altruistically than selfishly. Furthermore, he notes the role it plays in improving our interpersonal relationships, saying that ‘empathic communication’ is the key to their success.
In his book, Mastery, Robert Greene also cites the significance of empathy in cultivating social intelligence. He writes: “To be truly charming and socially effective you have to understand people, and to understand them you have to get outside yourself and immerse your mind in their world.” He explains that the goal of social intelligence is to see people in the most realistic light possible and to move past our tendency to idealise some and to demonise others.
The bottom line is that, by becoming a more empathic individual, we’re able to better understand others and, in turn, accept them for who they are.
The first habit introduced by Krznaric is, in his own words, the act of switching on our empathic brain – that is, to simply recognise empathy as being an inherent part of our nature and as a skill we can expand throughout our lives.
The second habit of highly empathic people is that they make a conscious effort to see from other perspectives, putting themselves in other people’s shoes. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey refers to this same habit as the ability to ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’.
Here, Krznaric stresses the point that we learn more when we do. He advises his readers to explore different perspectives through physical immersion, exploration and cooperation (e.g. through travel and volunteering). These experiences provide context so we can better understand other people’s ideas and values.
As Krznaric writes: “conversation is one of the essential ways in which we come to understand the inner emotional life and ideas of others.” In his eyes, empathic people develop a genuine curiosity about strangers and take the time to become better listeners. In a conversation, they will focus on the other person’s interests and wellbeing as much as their own.
Krznaric suggests we can expand our ability for empathy further by exploring a wider range of cultures and experiences through art and literature. In this way, we can journey into the lives and minds of other people, whilst in the comfort of our own home.
The final habit of highly empathic people is that they come together to work towards similar goals. Krznaric writes that this habit has become increasingly important in today’s society and it must be fully utilized to see changes in the larger issues we face.
As Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, wrote: “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of man’s feelings for himself.” Krznaric adds to this by writing: “people who are not at ease with themselves or who harbour a degree of self-loathing will struggle to relate to the feelings, needs and worldviews of others.” And so, to become more empathic, perhaps we must also learn to be kinder to ourselves. He explains, “If you want to step into someone else’s skin, you need to feel comfortable in your own.”
Whilst we cannot change our behaviour overnight, we can certainly consider the direction in which we’d like it to go. Above all else, Empathy serves as an important reminder to consider this direction.