The opposite of a psychopath is homo emphaticus, a term used by a cultural thinker and philosopher Roman Krznaric, to describe individuals with a great sense of empathy. But what is empathy? Quoting Krznaric, it’s the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives and to use that understanding to guide our actions. Empathy is different from sympathy, the former being about sharing and understanding someone else’s emotions, whilst the latter being about feeling sorrow or pity for someone else’s misfortune. Think “I feel for you” vs. “I feel sorry for you.”
With the Western culture being mostly driven by individual aspirations to succeed and self-help literature focussing on analysis of oneself, it is no wonder that empathy levels in today’s society are low. You may wonder how this is measured. The most effective method has been developed by the Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen: in his test participants are shown pictures of faces displaying different emotions and are asked to recognise them. It is apparently becoming trickier and trickier to relate to other people. In other words, the psychopaths are on the rise, and you don’t need my help to think of one.
Fortunately, empathy is something we can cultivate, and Roman Krznaric is on a mission to inspire an 'empathy revolution' to transform relationships with people and the world around us. In his book Empathy, he recommends a few ways to become more empathetic. Here are my three favourite ideas:
1. Talk to strangers
We tend to rely too much on stereotypes, such as “a greedy banker”, “a dumb waiter”, “a strange foreigner”. A simple conversation with a taxi driver or a person on a bus may surprise you.
2. Listen hard and open up
Some people tend to be good listeners, others find it easier to open up and reveal their feelings in a conversation. Both traits are important, and listening is not enough. Empathy is a two-way street, and mutual understanding and acceptance depend on our ability to share our vulnerabilities with each other.
3. Make an effort to have a social meal
Whilst I appreciate you reading this at lunchtime, munching on a sandwich, take an opportunity to have lunch with a colleague and practise your empathy.
If we could try to understand other people’s emotions, beliefs, fears and experiences, perhaps we’d be less quick to judge and throw stones. Perhaps this would not make front pages today.