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How To Discover And Flex Your Empathy Muscles
8th November 2022 • Social Skills Coaching • Patrick King
00:00:00 00:48:19

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Shownotes

• Reading literature may actually make you a more empathic human being. It can reduce bias and prejudice and literally change your brain physiology. The key is in the ability to switch perspectives.

• Choose literary fiction, preferably written in first person. Try authors who are different from yourself, or books about characters that are unlike yourself.


• Read actively and engage with the story. Pause to ask questions to investigate the character’s point of view, switching perspectives and exploring motivations and desires. Ask yourself, “What does the human experience feel like for this specific human? Why?” Instead of asking how you would feel in their shoes, ask how they feel in their shoes. However, be discerning about what kind of perspectives you delve into!


• Another way to build empathy is to create “emotional literacy.” Emotional literacy is the ability to identify and verbalize complex emotions. It is an act of self-awareness. With greater emotional identification and awareness comes more clarity, insight, and mastery—and better empathy.


• The emotion wheel is a helpful tool that helps you develop increased self-awareness, empathic mastery, and precision when it comes to emotions. It outlines shades and nuances of the eight primary emotions: sadness, anger, disgust, joy, trust, fear, surprise, and anticipation.


• We can use the emotion wheel both to identify and explore our own emotions and to identify and empathize with the emotions of others. To empathize with others’ emotions, pause to become aware, notice their body language, then identify a primary emotion on the emotion wheel. Keep asking questions, making observations, or offering emotion labels to home in on exactly what they’re feeling.


Show notes and/or episode transcripts are available at https://bit.ly/social-skills-shownotes


Learn more or get a free mini-book on conversation tactics at https://bit.ly/pkconsulting


#HowToDiscoverAndFlexYourEmpathyMuscles #RussellNewton #NewtonMG #PatrickKing #PatrickKingConsulting #SocialSkillsCoaching #ImproveYourPeopleSkills


Transcripts

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” at least according to George R. R. Martin, American novelist and creator of the fantasy universe that inspired the international TV hit Game of Thrones. People read fiction for many reasons, but one of literature’s most unappreciated benefits is that it may actually make you a more empathic human being.

Reading (or more specifically, reading fiction) can be the perfect tool to help you practice stepping outside of your own perspective and into the perspective of someone else—even if that someone is just make-believe. In the pages of a book, we can go deep inside the hearts and minds of people who inhabit experiences that may be completely alien to our own and see them through our own eyes.

We see what makes the villain tick, and we get to try on the frame of mind that inspires the hero to undertake his feats of bravery. We encounter firsthand the motivations and justifications of people who live in a universe far apart from our own—one that runs on completely different rules.

The great thing is that reading doesn’t feel like hard work. Getting inside the heads of the characters is simply something we do to enjoy the story and understand the narrative as it unfolds. The magic is that, somehow, engaging empathically with these narratives makes us better at navigating the perspectives of real people in real life, once we put the book down.

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The authors of the study concluded that reading could make people more tolerant and accepting of immigrants, gay and lesbian people, and refuges, explaining that, “the world of Harry Potter is characterized by strict social hierarchies and resulting prejudices, with obvious parallels with our society.” Although the story contains stigma and prejudice of a completely different kind (people with magical powers versus those without), the overall effect is to broaden perspectives and promote understanding.

The very same scientists conducted another piece of research where participants were asked to read the book Saffron Dreams. In this fictional story, a Middle Eastern Muslim woman tells of experiencing racism while living in New York. Participants who read the book were tested to have less negative bias against people of different ethnicities or religions when compared to participants who were asked to either read a mere summary of the book or read a non-fiction work.

It's easy to see why reading leads to empathy, and empathy leads to understanding and tolerance. It is far, far easier to accept and understand another if you have stepped inside their point of view.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

When we read these words written by Anne Frank in Diary of a Young Girl, something special happens. We are no longer reading dry facts about the persecution of those of Jewish heritage during the horrors of the Holocaust. We are no longer standing outside the story, looking in as ourselves, but entering into it and experiencing its contours as the characters themselves feel it.

This word “I” is a spell that transports us into the heart and mind of another. The irony is that our empathy only strengthens when we realize how deeply human a stranger’s experience is, and how similar to our own—i.e., even if we are not Jewish or fourteen years old or hiding in terror from persecution, we nevertheless have felt something of Anne Frank’s hope and faith. As our mind runs over the words, “I still believe that people are really good at heart . . .” it is as though our brain temporarily believes that it is in fact we who have these feelings.

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There is even evidence to suggest that reading fiction makes physiological changes to the brain. In one study, participants were asked to read a historical fiction title, Pompeii, about the plight of a man determined to save his wife during the volcanic eruption that decimated the renowned city. Over the period of reading the book, the participants underwent brain scans.

The findings were fascinating: the researchers found increased activity in brain regions associated with sensation and movement—strongly suggesting that just reading about the Pompeii man’s plight activated the brain in the same way as if they themselves were having that experience. It would seem that, at least for a few days after reading the story, the participants’ brains thought they were inhabiting the body of the main character. Powerful stuff!

So, how can we use this information to deliberately flex our empathy muscles and become better at perspective-taking?

Tip 1: Choose Your Fiction Wisely

You want to go for literary fiction—the kind of writing that immerses you in another character’s perspective, thoughts, feelings, and world view. All the better if it is written in first person (“I did such and so, and then I felt XYZ”). The classic “bildungsroman” is a novel based around character development and focuses heavily on unique people’s psyches and perceptions.

If you’re a male professional working in a metropolitan area in central Tokyo, what does it feel like to step into the shoes of a Russian noblewoman living centuries ago, facing the prospect of a doomed marriage during a time of war? If you’re a fifty-five-year-old African American mother of three, what does the world look like from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old boy living in rural Scotland, one year after his mother’s traumatic death?

Naturally, non-fiction will not have the same empathy-building effect since things like thrillers or crime dramas tend to brush over the inner workings of the characters’ lives and focus instead on plot and action. That said, any writing that focuses on the inner workings of another person’s heart and mind has the potential to stoke the fires of empathy.

Tip 2: Sample Widely

Reading is a superpower. Someone else’s story is a vehicle out of your own narrow perception and into something new and outside your own web of understanding and perception. To make full use of this superpower, read a wide variety of different perspectives. You can do this on two levels:

• Choose authors who are different from yourself. This means different age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, political affiliation, social class, generation, profession, or culture.

• Choose books about characters who are very unlike yourself. Good authors possess the gift of showing you someone else’s world from the inside out—and that includes those from other species, time periods, or universes!

You might decide to read on a topic that is personally familiar to you, but derive enormous benefit from seeing it tackled from a wholly different perspective. For example, you may have ancestors that lived through the Holocaust, and you may have read widely on the topic, but what happens when you read an autobiography of some of the German officials who were involved at the time? Perhaps you gain a much richer sense of empathy when you read a firsthand account about life during the time of the Rwandan genocide—an event that is wholly new to you, and yet somehow familiar.

Tip 3: Read ACTIVELY

There is no question that well-written literary fiction can transport you far from the limits of your own perspective. But it can’t do the work for you!

Read actively and engage with the story. Consider a particular character and ask yourself:

• How does the current event look from their point of view?

• What do they value, and what are they trying to achieve?

• What is their backstory, and how does it influence their actions right now?

• Ultimately, what is motivating them?

• What are they not saying? Consider the things you can infer about them by their choices, their actions, and what they deliberately choose to conceal or reveal.

• Think about their relationship to other characters in the book.

• If this person were in front of you right now, what kind of a conversation might you have with them?

In one way or another, every story is about the human experience. When you have empathy, you are learning to ask, “What does the human experience feel like for this specific human? Why?” For example, you may be reading a book about a gay couple in Arizona who are navigating the challenges of adopting a child. If you are not gay yourself, don’t want children, and can’t imagine going through the adoption process, you could look at their story and think, “This isn’t interesting,” because to you, the themes are just not relevant.

But the story does become relevant when you look at events not from your own point of view, but from theirs. We could ask, “How would I feel in their shoes?” but this is not perspective-taking. Empathy, rather, is about asking, “How do they feel in their shoes?” Big difference.

Importantly, you don’t have to like or concur with a perspective to take it. Remember that understanding doesn’t imply agreement—just understanding. The wonderful thing about perspective-taking is that you can switch right back again! Even if you don’t find someone else’s world all that interesting, realize that you still gain value simply by exposing yourself to something new. The empathy you cultivate trying to understand the gay couple’s point of view may indirectly help foster completely unrelated relationships elsewhere in your life.

Tip 4: Be Discerning

Bearing in mind that literary fiction can literally change your brain, be cautious about which perspectives you delve into. The mere fact of changing point of view is a valuable exercise in itself, but not all perspectives are created equally. In an era of fake news, mass-media manipulation, and underhanded political spin in the guise of journalism, it’s worth combining literary empathy with intelligent critical thinking.

After all, if you repeatedly read content from a particular person’s perspective, there’s a good chance it will influence your own over time—or even replace it. Literary fiction is art that is primarily created to explore a theme or aspect of the human condition. But there is a difference between a genuine perspective, an artistic creation, and an artificially constructed point of view designed to influence readers.

As an example, imagine you were reading the book Saffron Dreams

“But black reminds me of all that is sad and wrong in my life. Ironically, in this country, it validates my state of being a widow. It is also the color of my hijab—the dividing line between my life with Faizan and the one without him. How different lives are from continent to continent . . .”

. . . and discovered that it had not been written by author Shaila Abdullah, but by a twenty-something American male college student who majored in marketing! Changes things, doesn’t it? Exploring perspectives is a wonderful thing to do—just be fully aware of whose perspective is being shared, and to what end.

Doctor Sara Konrath, empathy expert and researcher, claims, “I do think that reading books can help to promote more kindness overall. But like any type of media, it probably depends on the content. After all, Mein Kampf by Hitler was a book that promoted hate.”

Become Emotionally Literate by Labeling

Just as the researchers in the previous chapter discovered that children who read were more empathic, they also discovered that they possessed more sophisticated language skills—which is understandable. There is a close and natural link between comprehending how someone feels and being able to describe that understanding and feeling. In other words, empathy and “emotional literacy” go hand in hand.

The emotion wheel helps you develop increased self-awareness, empathic mastery, and precision when it comes to emotions. This may seem at first like a very obvious point, but it’s worth noting that to manage, understand, and communicate the complex emotional realities of other people, you need to have a detailed and rich understanding of those emotions . . . a little like an artist needs a fine appreciation of all the countless shades and nuances of color to paint a full and faithful rendition of his subject.

Have you ever heard someone describe themselves as an “intuitive,” or claim to be very sensitive or even psychic? They might be. They also might, however, be confusing the experience of strong emotions with the understanding of those emotions. Having a strong knee-jerk emotional response to an event does not mean you can pinpoint what that feeling actually is—or what it isn’t. It also doesn’t automatically mean you have any self-awareness, compassion, or self-mastery.

If you’ve ever said something like, “Why did I say that?” or, “I don’t even know what I’m feeling right now,” then you’ll know firsthand that emotional literacy isn’t a given. Emotional literacy is the ability to identify and verbalize complex emotions. It is an act of self-awareness.

According to the creator of the emotion wheel, Robert Plutchik, there are eight primary human emotions, as well as their more subtle variations. According to Espinoza, a therapist who uses the emotion wheel to teach emotional literacy,

“Primary emotions are basic emotions that humans are born with that have been wired into our brains. Along the outer edges of the emotion wheel, you'll find low-intensity emotions such as acceptance, distraction, boredom, and so on. As you move toward the center, the color on the emotion wheel deepens and milder emotions become your basic emotions.”

Even if you don’t quite agree with the basic emotions it lists (and there are variations on this wheel), the basic purpose of such a tool is to gain a systematic understanding of emotions, how they vary in strength, and how they relate to one another. Importantly, the tool is there to help you map specific words onto emotional states. After all, it’s hard to communicate and engage with another person if you lack a common language to talk about the hidden, inner experiences you’re both having.

Astonishingly, Plutchik believed that humans could experience up to thirty-four thousand distinct emotions. However, all of these can be boiled down to the eight primary ones: sadness, anger, disgust, joy, trust, fear, surprise, and anticipation. (An even easier heuristic would be to reduce it to four emotions: mad, sad, glad, and fear.)

Sadness, for example, at the center of the wheel and at its most intense is grief. At the edges of the wheel, it is less intense and called pensiveness. Disgust at its most intense is loathing; mild disgust is more aptly boredom.

Each of these eight also combines with adjacent emotions. For example, the intersection of surprise and fear creates the emotion of awe. Because emotions can be understood as flowing on a spectrum (like color), we can theoretically identify almost infinite shades of emotion, including novel mixes and variations in intensity. Just like color, the emotion wheel also suggests each emotion’s “opposite”—for example, admiration versus loathing, or ecstasy versus grief.

Too many people assume that having emotions means they’re able to understand, label, or communicate emotions—but this is a separate skillset entirely. Sadly, too many people dismiss all emotions into one vague category (“feelings”) and believe that the finer nuances are not worth elucidating. Not true! With greater identification and awareness comes more clarity, insight, and mastery. And most importantly for our book, it aids empathy—how can you know what another is feeling if you both don’t know the word for it?

Our emotions serve a purpose and are there for a reason. We have emotions in the first place because for our ancient ancestors, emotions served a survival purpose and gave those who possessed them a fitness advantage. So, part of gaining emotional literacy is not just learning the names of different emotions, but understanding why they emerge, the function they serve, and how they emerge and dissipate in everyday situations.

Sadness

• Originating in the infant human’s distress at being separated from a caregiver; a primal response to loss and abandonment.

• Sorrow, depression, and hopelessness, but also milder versions including lethargy, apathy, and loneliness.

• Contrasting feeling is joy.

Anger

• Genetically programmed response to threat to life or territory, brought about by real or imagined harm or infringement.

• Rage and aggression are the intense versions, whereas milder forms include dissatisfaction or irritation.

• Contrasting feeling is fear.

Disgust

• Biologically rooted response to life-threatening situations, objects, or substances. Designed to get you far away from that which could harm you.

• Loathing and revulsion are on the stronger side, with boredom being a very weak form.

• Contrasting feeling is trust.

Joy

• On a basic biological level, the reinforcing response to life-affirming and successful behaviors.

• Stronger forms include ecstasy and elation, while a weaker form is contentment.

• Contrasting feeling is sadness.

Trust

• An abstract psychosocial experience of safety, and an optimism in the future and the positive behavior of others.

• At its most intense, it is hope and optimism; in its more neutral forms, it may show as curiosity.

• Contrasting emotion is disgust.

Fear

• Perhaps the primal emotion; the bodily aversion to danger.

• Its strongest form is terror and panic, while milder forms encompass things like anxiety, uncertainty, or even just frankness.

• Contrasting emotion is anger.

Surprise

• An ancient response that occurs when our expectations and the reality in front of us clash suddenly. This can result in feelings from amusement and disbelief to shock and speechlessness.

• Contrasting emotion is anticipation.

Anticipation

• Feelings of awaiting some assumed future event—first evolved in our species to help us adapt to potential future situations.

• It could take the form of excitement and pleasure, or irritation, uncertainty, and unease.

Reading the above list of eight basic emotions, you might have found them . . . well, a little basic. But the magic of the emotion wheel comes in how it’s used. Let’s consider a few ways to take what is essentially an emotions catalogue and put it to use practically.

Method 1—Identifying Your Own Emotions

Yes, this is a book about empathy, but the truth is that you cannot have heightened awareness of other peoples’ emotional states if you are a stranger to your own. In a later chapter, we’ll further explore the value of knowing ourselves in order to know others better, but for now, it’s enough to say that in any social situation, a mature person owes it to themselves and others to understand what emotions they are feeling, and that these emotions are in fact theirs (as opposed to belonging to or stemming from the other person).

Consult the emotion wheel any time you’re feeling overwhelmed, confused, or lost. Start at the center of the wheel and tune into your body, seeing which of the basic emotions most fits your physical sensations. How open or closed is your body? Openness suggests anticipation, trust, and joy, while a closed body can signal fear. Is your emotion advancing toward the situation or away from it? The former could suggest a variant of anticipation, the latter of disgust or surprise. How intense is the feeling? Is it changing in intensity over time?

If you’re really confused, ask questions to help you decide between two opposites. For example, do you feel more trust or more disgust? You notice your scowling expression—definitely disgust. Are you more afraid or angry? Maybe you notice you want to flee the situation rather than yell or hit something . . . definitely fear, then. After exploring your emotion for a while, you might settle on, for example, a complex feeling of shame and embarrassment, with a tinge of vulnerability.

It may help to consult a comprehensive list of emotions online (there are many available) to help you pinpoint how you’re feeling—remembering that emotions are often a mix of several different feelings that can vary in intensity and even in their direction (for example, disgust feels different if it’s directed toward another person, an inanimate object, or yourself). If you’re stuck, you could work backward and identify what you’re definitely sure you don’t feel, then consider the emotion on the opposite of the wheel. This may sound pretty obvious until you realize that many of us unconsciously forbid ourselves to experience certain emotions . . . so when we do, we’re unable to correctly see the experience for what it is.

It may be helpful to identify the different components that make up a larger, more complex emotion. Remember that emotions don’t happen in a void—there’s always a context, and the emotion is always just one part of a larger, dynamic narrative that’s still underway. You may be feeling both joy and sadness at the same time, in different proportions. Or you might discover a dynamic pattern where you vacillate between fear and anticipation, first one then the other, each one seeming to cancel the other.

You may even notice something like a main core emotion deep within that is covered superficially by a secondary emotion on the surface. This is because we can have emotions about emotions—we may feel fear, for example (primary or core emotion), but then feel anger at ourselves for feeling that way (secondary emotion). Then when we ask, “How do I feel?” we might answer with “annoyed” or “bored,” but this is just the secondary surface emotion. If we dig deep underneath that initial irritation, we will find that we are, in fact, afraid.

If you use the emotion wheel to come to this conclusion, you’ve given yourself three important benefits:

1. You now have a better, more realistic understanding of what is going on so you can actually do something about it

2. You can give yourself the compassion and understanding you need

3. You can clearly and honestly communicate your experience with others, creating more authentic connections. If there is a conflict, expressing yourself accurately will give you a much better chance of resolving it!

Understanding your own emotions is like making a two-dimensional picture three-dimensional. Emotions give you important contextual information that allows you to engage in intelligent problem-solving, real communication, and self-awareness. In a way, learning to understand your emotions better is taking yourself as your first object for practicing empathy.

Sure, knowing how you feel won’t make the emotion magically disappear or solve all your problems, but it’s the first small step toward acceptance and self-knowledge. Putting your finger on an overwhelming emotion can be incredibly empowering in the moment because it reminds you that, yes, you are just having an emotion—it is temporary and will pass.

Emotions are not just things that happen to us. We are not simply at their mercy. We can engage with our experience and become curious about it, asking:

What do I feel?

Where is this feeling coming from? Why am I feeling it?

What purpose does this emotion serve?

What happened immediately before I felt like this?

What events, people, situations, or thoughts can I connect this emotion with?

How is my body feeling?

In real life, there will never be an obvious opportunity to sit down and deliberately become aware of your emotions—emotional literacy means consciously choosing to have this awareness. Understanding emotions on an intellectual level is one thing, but the real mastery comes when you can be honest, self-aware, and curious in the moment while you are experiencing an emotion. Thus, emotions are easy to understand and easy to master in principle—but not in practice. Let’s consider an example.

You get home after spending the day with your parents, and your head is a mess. You crash on the sofa and feel like you’ve been hit by a bus. Your partner pokes their head round the corner to ask an innocent question, and you snap at them, causing offense. Now is your chance. If you are emotionally intelligent, moments of emotional intensity can be thought of as an invitation to stop, become aware, and gain self-control. You pause and notice where you are—what’s going on with you? Why?

You take a few deep breaths and notice how hard this is. You close your eyes and “feel into” this sensation. There’s a weird tightness at the back of your throat that feels almost like crying or choking. You become aware that you’re frowning and that your fists are balled up. When you deliberately relax your muscles, you notice a flood of emotion coming up in you—it feels awful.

You keep breathing and exploring the sensation with the curiosity of a scientist but the compassion of a good friend. You find the emotion wheel and zoom in on grief and loathing. That feels close to your current experience, but it doesn’t make sense—you love your parents and don’t want them to fly home tomorrow. What’s going on?

After more gentle contemplation and honest inner inquiry, you start to see that this layer of anger is hiding a deeper sense of sadness. Don’t you always feel this way when people are saying goodbye? You are happy to see your parents after years of living in different countries, but when you meet, it only seems to drive home the distance between you, and you are simultaneously angry at them and the inevitable goodbye that has to come.

By doing this exercise alone at home, you are in fact completely changing the situation, even if it doesn’t seem like it initially. You are less likely to be irritable with your partner and more likely to share your real feelings with your parents at the airport the next day, rather than make a snarky comment about never seeing them again. What’s more, you are able to better process your sadness—and move on from it.

According to Espinoza, identifying emotions is the first step to moving through and past them: "It is imperative to name our emotions and know what we are feeling in order to prevent an intensification of emotions, which can result when we don't deal with or confront our emotions. The emotion wheel is a helpful tool that helps one identify their feelings and become comfortable in sitting and feeling their emotions."

Method 2—Identifying the Emotions of Others

Compassion, awareness, acceptance, curiosity—the great thing about all these qualities is that when we develop them in ourselves, we simultaneously develop our ability to feel them for others. The more perceptive we are about our own emotional states, the better we are able to appreciate other people’s. We can use our own emotional experiences as a kind of bootstrap; no, we will never know exactly what it feels like to be another person, but we know what it feels like to be us. Because all humans share the same basic physiological emotions, our feelings and experiences can be a bridge or a shared language into the emotional experiences of another person. We can access another person’s world via their rational, cognitive mind, and by examining their thoughts and perspectives—but this is always going to be superficial when compared with the real flesh-and-blood lived experience of emotion.

The first (counterintuitive) step to being more empathic is to become more emotionally literate within yourself. This finetunes your focus, your awareness, your emotional vocabulary, your ability to accept with open curiosity, and—this is a big one—take responsibility for your own feelings so you don’t project them onto others. You can take this emotional mastery into every interaction with others.

The process to being aware of another person’s emotions is not dissimilar from the process described above:

1. Pause and become aware without judgment or avoidance

2. Notice first the reaction and response of the body

3. Identify a primary emotion on the emotion wheel

4. Keep asking questions or making observations to home in on more subtle variations of the primary emotion

Imagine, for example, that your parents have come to visit and you are out having a drink with your father. You pause and deliberately ask yourself, “What is he feeling? What is his emotional reality right now?” You listen carefully and watch his behavior with compassionate curiosity. You see that despite laughing and making small talk with the bar staff, his body seems tight and stiff, and he is avoiding eye contact.

You think about the emotion wheel and try to imagine which core emotion matches up with this physical experience of rigidity and “closedness.” Taking into account other contextual clues and what you already know about your father, you begin to see that he is in fact quite anxious—a moderate expression of the primary emotion of fear. You notice also that it started when you entered the bar. In fact, as you observe the raised shoulders and tightened jaw muscles, you realize that you yourself also feel a little on edge—perhaps in sympathy with him.

The bill comes and your father makes a rude comment about the price of the drinks, and it all falls into place—he is anxious about spending too much money. You smile and offer to pay the bill and suggest that you leave and find something more relaxed (and free!) to do next. “I can see you’re a little on edge. What do you say we get out of here?”

In that moment, your father may well feel like you’ve read his mind. But you’ve merely shown a little empathy. Had you not had this empathy, you would have looked at his smiling face and assumed all was well—and he would have grown more and more irritable and anxious with every new drink that was ordered. Instead, by recognizing his emotion, you were able to navigate this simple social situation in a way that created more understanding, harmony, and connection.

This brings us to a final consideration when it comes to the emotions of others: We don’t always have to guess! Depending on the relationship with your father, you might have been able to say, “Hey, it seems like you’re a little anxious right now. How are you doing?” When we tentatively volunteer a label for the emotion another person might be feeling, we are doing three things:

1. Helping them gain more self-awareness of their own emotions

2. Confirming our observation and giving them a chance to help us adjust our understanding (“No, not anxious exactly, but I am a bit annoyed at spending so much on a cocktail . . .”)

3. Demonstrate to the other person that we are present, that we are listening, and that we care about witnessing their emotional state and getting its name right

Cautiously suggesting an emotion label for someone else’s experience is a great way to signal that you want to be empathic . . . which is a big part of being empathic! It opens a dialogue. It creates more intimacy and connection. Even if you don’t “guess” correctly, you are inviting the other person to share a little of themselves. If you do guess correctly, you may create a precious moment of understanding and trust—the stuff that relationships are made of!

The trick is to be subtle and gentle rather than trying to forcefully label someone or interpret their experience within your own framework. Make a suggestion, then pull back and listen, noting the response.

“You seem a little ________ right now.”

“Wow. Do you think you felt ________ when that happened?”

“Would you say you’re feeling kind of ________ about it?”

Start with a core emotion and let the other person do the finetuning.

A: “Oh, that sounds so sad.”

B: “Well, yes. Sad but also really disappointing at the same time, you know?”

A: “I get it. It seems like you’re really disheartened by the whole thing . . .”

If you’re really at a loss, just use the same words or imagery the other person is using, or look for a close synonym. If they have said the word “stressed” to you five times in the last two minutes, then reflect this back to them by saying something like, “This must be such an anxious time for you!” Play it by ear but keep it light—just remember that nothing is more infuriating than an amateur psychologist putting words in your mouth instead of listening to what you’re actually telling them!

Summary

• Reading literature may actually make you a more empathic human being. It can reduce bias and prejudice and literally change your brain physiology. The key is in the ability to switch perspectives.

• Choose literary fiction, preferably written in first person. Try authors who are different from yourself, or books about characters that are unlike yourself.

• Read actively and engage with the story. Pause to ask questions to investigate the character’s point of view, switching perspectives and exploring motivations and desires. Ask yourself, “What does the human experience feel like for this specific human? Why?” Instead of asking how you would feel in their shoes, ask how they feel in their shoes. However, be discerning about what kind of perspectives you delve into!

• Another way to build empathy is to create “emotional literacy.” Emotional literacy is the ability to identify and verbalize complex emotions. It is an act of self-awareness. With greater emotional identification and awareness comes more clarity, insight, and mastery—and better empathy.

• The emotion wheel is a helpful tool that helps you develop increased self-awareness, empathic mastery, and precision when it comes to emotions. It outlines shades and nuances of the eight primary emotions: sadness, anger, disgust, joy, trust, fear, surprise, and anticipation.

• We can use the emotion wheel both to identify and explore our own emotions and to identify and empathize with the emotions of others. To empathize with others’ emotions, pause to become aware, notice their body language, then identify a primary emotion on the emotion wheel. Keep asking questions, making observations, or offering emotion labels to home in on exactly what they’re feeling.