Teach yourself empathy | Sunday Observer

Teach yourself empathy

26 June, 2022

While waiting to meet a surgeon on appointment I saw a woman staggering into his room blood seeping from every visible orifice.

Instantly the surgeon and his staff sprang into action to handle the emergency ignoring the patients who were waiting to consult him. The woman was rushed into a treatment room to stanch her bleeding and an ambulance came a few minutes later to take the woman away.

Most patients who had been waiting to see the surgeon understood the situation. However, one woman who was indignant over the delay to see the surgeon screamed: “How dare you keep us waiting?”

The above incident shows that most of us have an ability to understand other people’s feelings and problems. However, there are people who have not developed their faculty of empathy. Can anyone teach them empathy? It is not easy to give someone the ability to step into the shoes of another person and understand his feelings and perspectives and to use that understanding to guide their own actions. This is quite different from kindness, sympathy or pity.

You can feel pity when you see an old person begging on the street. Unless you have the ability to step into his shoes and do something to help him, any feeling of pity does not serve any purpose. Always remember the golden rule: “Do unto others, you would have them do unto you.” If this sounds too religious, listen to George Bernard Shaw who said, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” Empathy is all about discovering those tastes.

Popular series

Although we find it difficult to teach empathy to our children or others, you can teach it yourself. I remember the “Teach Yourself” series which covered every conceivable subject. When I enrolled myself to follow a course in legal studies, the lecturer asked the students to read “Teach Yourself Law.” I found the book quite entertaining. Likewise you can teach yourself empathy but I have not come across any book with the title “Teach Yourself Empathy.”

However, I found a new book “Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution” which is a Random House publication. The book will help you to cultivate the habits of empathic people. In other words, you can teach yourself empathy the easy way.

Today business leaders, politicians and scientists talk about empathy. It does not mean empathy is a way to extend the boundaries of your moral universe. In fact, empathy is a habit you can cultivate easily to improve the quality of your own life.

Scientists tell us that we are “Homo empathicus” wired for empathy. In other words, humans are capable of social cooperation and mutual aid. We see some traces of it at places where people gather.

These days supermarkets are full of customers. Some of them buy more items than they really need. Anyway supermarkets cannot be blamed for that situation. One day there was a long line of customers with their trolleys full of goodies. The cashier was busy attending to them. At that time an elderly woman who had bought only a packet of milk food joined the queue. However, most customers allowed her to go to the cashier directly without waiting in the queue. It was a simple situation where empathy came into play.

Empathic brain

Psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered that 98 percent of the people have the ability to empathise. In other words, most people switch on their empathic brains when they leave their homes. However, we very often come across people who yell at others for jumping the queue. According to scientists, such events take place when the empathy circuits in our brains are damaged. As a student of biology I have learned that humans are social animals and Socrates called them “Rational animals.” Over a long process of evolution humans have been primed for empathy.

When you step out of your comfort zone try to use your empathic brain when dealing with others. While seated comfortably on a bus or train, you see a feeble woman carrying a baby looking for a seat. If your empathic brain is functioning, you will readily offer your seat to her. However, most passengers switch off their empathic brains when they find a seat.

Most empathic people make a concerted attempt to imagine themselves in other people’s shoes. Such an imaginative leap can be boosted by empathic listening. This does not mean that you have to listen to all the sob stories of professional beggars.

As a rational person you should be able to differentiate between genuine people and professional beggars. If you meet a man or woman with an apparently genuine grievance, lend your ears to them and offer any help if necessary.


Empathy helps to maintain healthy relationships. Whenever you meet your friends and well-wishers, do not come out with your grievances. Instead try to find out whether they are in need of your services. Problems arise when you do not understand other people’s grievances.

Sometimes spouses keep on arguing about simple matters. A husband might say, “Why can’t she understand what I am feeling?” Of course, he is asking for empathy from his wife.

When you start practising empathic listening, there will be lesser problems in life. If a spouse is shouting at you, try to find out the real cause. Listen to the other person without arguing. Some people give vent to their pent-up feelings by shouting at others. You have only to listen to them patiently. By doing so, you will be able to avoid niggling annoyance turning into resentment. The simple fact is that most of us want to be listened to and understood.

If you are a highly empathic person, you will have an insatiable curiosity about strangers. Most of us do not like to have a conversation with a stranger for many valid reasons. However, when you are out and about try to speak to strangers. Children have a natural inquisitiveness but adults do not cultivate it. Studs Terkel, a prominent historian, says, “Don’t be the examiner, be the interested enquirer.”


If you are curious, you can draw a lot of information from strangers. For this you have to talk to people outside your profession or social circle. One day I struck up a conversation with a stranger travelling with me on a long distance bus. After the preliminaries, he asked me where I worked. When I told him the name of my organisation, I noticed a change in his attitude. Then he started criticising my organisation. I did not react to his criticism because you find different types of people.

Although we do not have the means to visit all the countries, we can be armchair travellers. We can read books and magazines, watch films and see how people live in other countries. In the classic novel “To Kill a Mocking Bird” there is a memorable line: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk round in it.” Entering other people’s lives through books and films can be a very good learning experience.

It is a wrong notion to believe that empathy happens only when you believe others. It can spill over to society triggering even a revolution. Those who took part in the Occupy Movement and Arab Spring were solely motivated by empathy. Your empathy levels go up when you join others. Plant the seeds of empathy in your children and notice how they develop their emotional intelligence.

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