What Does Empathy Have to do With Success?
Simply put, empathy is being able to feel the experience of another person. If you’ve ever noticed a small child try to comfort a distressed playmate or even a baby closely watch a crying infant, you have seen the early signs of empathy. It appears as if the ability to sense the pain or emotions of others is part of us from the beginning.
In fact, it is. The development of empathy is a neurobiologically based competency that includes several awesome processes that lead to a well-rounded social experience. And life success is highly dependent on our social-emotional skills. Strengthening our ability to understand a variety of perspectives and share the lives of those we love and work beside is incredibly valuable to our own sense of well-being.
Two types of empathy have been identified in research. The first is the easiest to notice – emotional. When we see someone in great pain or misery, we can immediately remember that powerful emotion welling up inside and cringe or even shed a tear. The more we recognize ourselves in that moment, the more intensely we feel that same emotion. And on the opposite end, the less we relate to the individual, the less we share in their suffering.
It’s much more difficult to see someone from a completely different walk of life and feel that twist in the gut. That’s not to say we should constantly weep or involve ourselves in everyone’s distress. If we did that, we would be absolutely spent.
In an effort to balance that healthy dose of empathy, it helps to tune into the other type of empathy – cognitive. That refers to empathic accuracy which is more of a skill. We really do have that biological component that kick starts our skill in reading others and tuning into their thoughts, feeling, and emotions. Our mirror neurons are ready to help us imagine how others experience life around us every day from early on. Cognitive empathy skills improve by accessing our higher levels of thought. Our medial prefrontal cortex provides us with the capacity to expand those “feelers” and accurately predict and understand people even beyond our own realm of experience.
When a typical child reaches five, they develop something referred to as theory of mind. That’s when they can figure out what others are thinking and feeling and practicing that skill sets the stage for a healthy life. Teaching and reinforcing those early emotional connections are important. You probably remember being asked how it would feel if little Susie took your toys away.
Once we reach adulthood, we can let those early lessons slide and find ourselves focusing on the humdrum aspects of our busy lives. We have snippets of conversations that include highlights and low points of our rushed existence. Can we improve those empathic skills as adults?
Just like any skill, empathy can improve with effort. A well-developed empathic response to people like us as well as those we have little in common with is related to an overall positive well-being and interactional profile. Attending to our more compassionate side expands our minds and relationships with a greater range of people. Our desire to comfort, engage with, and help others increases as we take the time to deepen connections.
The more we can engage with those around us, the more likely we are to sense needs and act on them. Really being present for others means listening without formulating what we want to say. Reflecting underlying feelings can come naturally once we tune in with greater concern. That transfers to improved relationships and a heightened sense of joy from meeting needs around us. We can’t be fully available to everyone at all times, but it is possible to deeply engage with those you feel especially drawn to.
Our lives can ring full of purpose when we intentionally engage with people and support their journey in life. We come away with a beautiful memory of connecting with our fellow humans and will often gain more by doing so. The happiest individuals are those who give out of their own need.
I encourage you to seek out opportunities to flex your empathic senses. Your effort will only lead to more of the same – respect for others and yourself.