How to expand your empathic potential

“Empathy is like a Universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble.”– Simon Baron-Cohen

Our relationship with others determines much of our happiness and success in life. How you get along with your coworkers, superiors, friends and family often depends on your interpersonal skills, and at the root of good interpersonal skills is empathy which is also is an essential component for leadership. Most of us empathise with other people in variety of situations, but we also fail in some. In a world that spends much time picking at flaws and inciting fear and anger, empathy can help you to build successful relationships at personal, and professional level by understanding other people’s perspectives, needs, intentions and situations. And also the ability to see things from another person’s perspective and understanding another’s emotions plays an important role in building your social relationships.

Some of us are naturally gifted when it comes to being able to relate to others’ experiences while others are naturally lower on empathy scale and are ill-equipped when it comes to understanding other’s needs and emotions. Moreover, many of us tend to consider empathy is only for non-profits and entrepreneurs with idealistic dreams and don’t see its relevance in competitive or workplace environments where there is a need to make most of every opportunity. But if you shift your focus on recognising the benefits of being more empathic, not only you can build better relationships, but also can build smarter and productive workplaces. No matter where you find yourself on the empathy spectrum, like other leadership skills, it can be something that can be practiced and learned overtime. It is also one of the most important interpersonal skill to cultivate, develop and teach others.

So, What specifically empathy is and how it differs from sympathy?

A simple definition of empathy is “the tendency to be psychologically in tune with others’ feelings and perspectives.” You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view or until you step into his shoes. It is that understanding what it feels like to be other person, what fears he or she has and what they care about by emotionally connecting and communicating with the other person. Empathy involves the emotional centre of our brain that perceives feelings of others and the cognitive centre that tries to understand why they feel that way and how we can be helpful to them.

Many of us view empathy as being sympathetic with the other person. But empathy differs with sympathy in that it fuels connection whereas sympathy drives disconnection. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone without grasping what that person is really going through or how they are experiencing the world or in other words, it is only interpreting others from our own perspective and not from theirs. Whereas empathy is like other-oriented perspective taking rather than self-oriented perspective taking.

Being empathic is a vulnerable choice one has to make in order to connect with others. And to connect with others, you have to connect with something in yourself that knows that feeling. But one of the things we do in a difficult conversation is we try to make things better, but rarely can a response makes things better. Only connecting to the individual deeply and sharing and understanding their perspective can make things better.

Why practice empathy ?

Many workplace problems stem from lack of perspective-taking or due to an empathy-deficit. In today’s fast-paced world, when we think of productivity, many of us think of meeting deadlines, producing deliverables or effective time-management, but tend to overlook how empathy can help in improving personal or workplace productivity. Here is why it is important to practice empathy.

• It can help in employee engagement, retention and improving their productivity.

• It helps you to understand personal challenges of people on your team or their perspectives on important things.

• When everyone on your team are appreciated and valued for their work, they feel motivated to put in their total effort.

• It improves creativity and innovation. When everyone on your team know that they are understood and valued for the contributions they make, they freely share their ideas and perspectives and take more chances to be innovative.

• Empathy also enhances teamwork competence and a culture of working together with helpful behaviours and by resolving conflicts

• Empathy helps you to understand whether people on your team are task-oriented, people-oriented, outgoing, introverted, feelings-oriented or facts-oriented. Once you know how they are wired, you can attend to their needs, make them feel understood and valued.

• You can build a level of trust that can result improved engagement and increased productivity and build trustworthy and approachable attitude towards to offer support or guidance in getting through their difficult situations.

Why people lack empathy?

Our empathic tendencies mostly depend on our beliefs and values. We tend to have low empathic potential when we are influenced by cognitive biases. These biases can make it difficult to see all the factors that contribute to a situation and make it difficult to see a situation from the perspective of another. Also, when we think that people who are different from us don’t feel and behave the same as we do, we feel less empathic. For instance, when it comes to disaster or a conflict in a distant place, we might lack empathy if we think that those who are suffering are fundamentally different than we are.

Can empathy really be learnt?

All human beings are not created equal when it comes to the capacity of empathy. According to research, in addition to our genetic disposition, there are other factors that influence our capacity to attune to others’ feelings and perspectives. It is possible to expand your empathic potential and can be done so by practicing simple habits that enhance our

• Perspective-taking or to be able to see from others’ perspective.

• Non-judgmental attitude.

• Understanding of others’ feelings, and

• Communication of the understanding of those feelings.

How to expand your empathic potential

To cultivate empathy, you require,

• Self-awareness to better understand yourself, your motives, and your own emotions so as to distinguish between your own feelings and those of others.

• Emotional intelligence to recognise emotions in others as well as oneself, and know-how to manage and regulate them.

• Active listening skills to know and understand another’s perspective.

• Curiosity to be genuinely interested in others.

• Other-oriented perspective taking or setting aside your personal biases, opinions, and agendas and see things from other person’s perspective.

Here are some strategies to cultivate these simple habits to expand your empathic potential.

Develop active listening

Active listening or listening with purpose requires focused attention and concentration towards what is being said rather than just passively hearing. It is also about understanding the entire message that others are communicating. Pay attention to any of the key words and phrases that are being used repeatedly and their non-verbal cues that reveal a great deal about what a person is thinking and feeling. For instance, pay attention to their body language like whether they appear open or guarded. are they angry, guilty or scared to gain a better perspective on what is being communicated.

Active listening is not only about listening but also about empathic conversation and really taking in what the other person is saying. Avoid arguing with what is being said or by disputing facts. Paraphrase what the other person has said. This helps you acknowledge that you are on the same page and that you understand the content. Reflect back your emotional reaction. This helps the person better understand and regulate their own emotion.

Practice being non-judgmental

Being non-judgmental is very important to expand your empathic potential, especially while interacting with someone. Jumping to conclusions rather easily, making up your mind before you hear all the facts, or not even keen on listening to others’ perspectives may hold you back from understanding others. It might get frustrating at times when people struggle to find answers for themselves. However, it is better to resist the temptation to judge or blame and fix them. Being empathic is to provide emotional support and not to judge or blame them.

When we become judgmental, we don’t gain deeper understanding of the person’s perspective or the situation he or she is in. Also People will often hold themselves back from expressing their true feelings or intentions to protect themselves from judgment, criticism, embarrassment or ridicule. By being non-judgmental, you can create a safe environment to share their perspectives and they can trust you to do so. Try to learn more about the person you are empathising with by trying to find things he or she probably has in common with you to build trust and openness.

Consider other’s perspectives

We all have assumptions about others and use collective labels that prevents us from knowing and appreciating other’s perspectives. Everyone has their unique set of beliefs and values that influence their opinions and how they interpret the world. These beliefs influence what they say, fear and what they do or avoid doing. They influence whom they trust and how they respond to problems and adversity. Certain experiences might bring emotional baggage that affects their state of mind or how they view themselves and ultimately how they deal with certain events and circumstances.

Before evaluating someone else’s actions or personality, place yourself in their shoes and understand where they are coming from. Everyone makes choices according to their life circumstances. It is all relative to their story, values, and beliefs. Set aside your own personal biases, opinions, and prejudice to accept others regardless of the differences in your opinions. Challenge your prejudices and preconceptions if you want to be empathetic and look for their true feelings, intentions and motives. By developing a helpful outlook towards others, you can better understand their perspective and thus expand your empathic potential.

Cultivate curiosity

The ability to feel empathic requires being genuinely curious about where others are coming from. Reconnect with your inner-child and develop a genuine interest in other people’s life and their well-being, especially people you know nothing about and who are outside of your social circle. If all you care is only about yourself or your own well-being, then you simply don’t have what it takes to develop empathy. Cultivating curiosity requires more than a small-talk and most importantly, try understanding other’s perspectives and views that are different from your own.

Ask Gentle probing questions. help the you to get a sense of their state of mind and how it is affecting them at the present moment. Ask questions with genuine interest to encourage others to open up and to know how they feel about the situation. Incorporate empathy with questions like, “How do you think things are going?” or “ how are things going for you?” This may allow someone to open up about an area in which they are struggling or that which may be hurting their productivity. To begin with a question instead of giving advice or feedback sets the tone of openness. Being empathic towards others is not to provide answers or to fix their problems but rather to help them to find answers for themselves by sharing their perspectives, opinions and feelings.

Raise your emotional quotient

Downside of practicing empathy is that we tend to get emotionally drawn into other person’s beliefs, experiences and in other words, into their world. When you start experiencing their problems or pain, it can become quite overwhelming and may interfere with our quality of life and our ability to help others. So, it’s important to raise your emotional stability to not to get effected by their experiences and to understand their emotional needs and tendencies. You can achieve this by gaining awareness of your own actions, emotional triggers and feelings and how they affect those around you. And in a way, it helps you to value others, listen to their needs and challenges they face so you will be able to empathise with them.

Developing emotional stability capacitates focusing at will and inhibits strong impulses and urges making you better equipped in terms of how to help others in gaining a positive perspective rather than worrying along with them. By managing your emotions in healthy way, you can act thoughtfully and develop the ability to perceive and understand the emotions of others and use that to build better relationships with those around you to help, lead, influence, negotiate or work as a part of team.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the most effective habit you can develop to expand your empathic potential. Simple practices like bringing attention to one’s breathing or physical sensations, can create compassionate, timeless, worry-free space into our minds. Being mindful to our concerns and emotions makes us more self-aware which in turn helps in raising our emotional quotient. Such inner kindness and awareness naturally leads to greater empathy towards others.

To conclude,

There is no single right way to demonstrate your empathy. It depends on the situation, the individual and their dominant emotions at the time. Empathy is not only for situations of crisis but goes well beyond knowing others’ requirements to truly understanding their hopes, dreams, frustrations, fears, tendencies, and more. Random acts of kindness, giving people your attention, being curious about their goals, life interests or intentions and offering constructive feedback are all part of empathic behaviour.

To understand others from their perspectives in your personal or professional life is one that you can choose all the time. Only by understanding what other person’s state of mind and needs in the situation, you can genuinely offer support they need be it emotional, physical or moral. Being empathic is not just extending the boundaries of your moral values, but also is a habit you can cultivate to improve the quality of your life and of people’s in your personal or professional relationships. Cultivate these simple habits to expand your empathic potential and make it a part of your daily life to help others to move past the obstacles and fears that are holding them back.

When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you.” – Susan Sarandon

How to let go of your toxic thoughts

Every thought we think is creating our future.”― Louise Hay

Our thoughts and emotions shape our experiences. We become what we feed our minds. The decisions and choices we make determine the direction we take in our lives, and we do so by our thoughts. Thoughts if aligned with our goals and with what we want to achieve can take us forward—and, obviously, this is the direction most of us want to take. But many times, we fall into a repetitive pattern of negative thinking that often takes us in the opposite direction. Negative/ toxic thoughts become the driving factor in a negative lifestyle that take us away from our goals and objectives, whereas positive thoughts often lead to motivation and success.

Our thoughts have huge influence on the choices you make.

We are all engaged in a continuous internal dialogue in which the meaning and emotional associations of one thought triggers the next, without us being consciously aware of the process. We launch our desires in the form of a thought and they play an important part of our inner wisdom. A thought held long enough and repeated enough becomes a belief. We shape our lives by the choices made around these beliefs and build our identity around them.

We contribute towards the creation of every condition in our lives with our internal thought process influencing us. But when we get involved in negative emotions and feelings, we begin to compare, criticise, form opinions, and make judgments that can be detrimental to our well-being. Our minds like to throw lots of thoughts at us all the time and many of them are mostly unhelpful. Such unhelpful negative thoughts can create toxicity reflecting unhealthy comparisons between an ideal and reality.

What are toxic thoughts?

In our default mode, our mind hops from one thought to an other creating toxic thought cycles. Toxic thinking is a survival strategy our minds come up with, that constantly activates the body’s survival response. This is a way of dealing with feelings such as not feeling “good enough”, “deserving enough”, or “having enough”. Such feelings are natural way of dealing with issues and other stress situations. It is very easy for us to turn to toxic thoughts because we are hardwired to over think and be extra critical of ourselves.

How toxic thoughts sabotage well-being and productivity

Some of our toxic thought patterns create the conditions for our illnesses. Physiological reactions caused by toxic thoughts affect our well-being . This is because our subconscious mind manages all of the “built-in” processes that help our body function. This happens through neurotransmitters or brain chemicals that help communication between the mind and the body.

Our subconscious brain is hard-wired for survival and can not distinguish between real or perceived threats. Toxic thoughts ignite fear based thinking that signals the brain to release stress hormones and puts your body in high alert to cope with the perceived danger. Thus, when faced with threat, it triggers a psychological stress response and releases stress hormones which our body is only equipped to cope with for short periods of time. Unfortunately in our modern hectic lives, we are faced with stressors every day, be it real or perceived. This constant stress responses floods your body with stress hormones which can be harmful to your immune system.

Our brains constantly tend to flip-flop between the past and the future. Thus, past memories and perceptions can create repetitive patterns of negative thoughts. When we constantly replay in our minds, events and people that harmed us, or incidents that upset us or made us angry, we get locked in a negative loop. These recurring thought patterns are toxic to us both physically and mentally affecting our well-being and productivity.

Also, Self-deprecating thoughts can batter your self-esteem, self-worth and confidence. When you become your highest critic, you stop taking action, start making excuses, stop sharing and you start to live like you’re not enough. More negative thoughts, more are the chances of making bad choices and this can further sabotage your efforts of creating the life you would dream of. It is simple fact that positive thoughts lead to better choices and thus to a positive life. Negativity leads to limited and wrong choices.

How to let go of toxic thoughts

It is essential to notice when your inner dialogue is turning toxic. Adopting strategies to consciously acknowledge, identity, accept, and letting go of your toxic thoughts can be an effective way to detoxify yourself. To truly create long-lasting improvements in your productivity level and well-being, it is essential to let go of your toxic thoughts. Here are some toxic thoughts you can to let go in your future self improvement goals.

Procrastinating thoughts like “ I’ll do this later” or “ I’ll start tomorrow” is often an excuse for not taking responsibility of how to change or improve yourself. Putting off something you need to get done leads to more stress. Being intrinsically driven and adding structure to your routines can be effective in warding off your thoughts of procrastination. Stop giving into short-term gratification and be committed to long-term health and fulfilment.

Thoughts of victim hood like “It’s all their fault… “ or “ I am a genuine victim” Playing the victim card can be a huge obstacle in pursuing your goals and makes you feel that someone else should take care of you, take responsibility for different areas of your life including your health and happiness. Stop blaming other people or circumstances for your problems or difficult situations you are in. If you don’t like where you are now, begin to take personal responsibility to empower yourself to change your circumstances and situations to achieve your desired goals.

Thoughts of constant comparison like “I am inadequate” or “ I should have” or “ if only I was” result in thoughts of insecurity, jealousy, resentment or unworthiness. We compare ourselves to other people and take the differences and create toxic thoughts around them. It is important to understand that everyone has their own struggles and it’s not right to compare our lives to what we think others’ lives are like. This leads to thinking that we are deficient or defective, failing at life or broken. This type of thinking can quickly impair your ability to succeed both personally or professionally. Instead of always trying to keep up with something, work on improving yourself.

Thoughts that focus on the past like “my past equals my future.” or “ I need to stay safe.” Many people operate from this idea that past equals future, i.e., if you had faced rejection in past, therefore they avoid taking risk or to come out of their comfort zone. Similarly. a lot of negativity comes from the past especially when it comes to personal or professional relationships. We all tend to keep a piece of our past with us to protect us from being hurt again. But if you continue to bring past into your present, you will end up self sabotaging your present and create toxic thoughts that constantly resist ‘what is’. Look to the past to prevent yourself from repeating mistakes but do not obsess about the past so much that it impacts your present and future.

Worrying about the future like “ I’ll never get what I want.” Just as dwelling on the past is toxic, over worrying about the future can make your thoughts more toxic. Tying your happiness an achievement in the future is like postponing your happiness to a later moment which is not in your control. Instead change your thinking pattern so you are not always waiting for your circumstances to change. It’s important to give some thought to the future so that you can come up with a plan to reach your goals, but over obsessing is never good. Forgetting to live in the present can have serious implications on your happiness and success.

Worrying About What Others Think like “I must be approved of by everyone or I am not a good person.”This is an extremely toxic thought because you think others are judging you. Constantly wondering what the people around you think is useless because no matter what you do- good or bad- someone somewhere will always think something. No one is judging you as much as you are judging yourself. So, Let go of worrying about what others think about you and pursue what makes you happy.

The need to be always right or “I know I am always right.. “ or feeling that you always need to prove that you are right. It feels good to be right, but sadly the world doesn’t always work to your advantage and there will be times when you are flat out wrong. Such times, admitting that you are wrong is a much more noble and mature thing to do. Always wanting to be right becomes limitation in learning new things and leads to stagnation. The first step in getting unstuck is to stop telling yourself you always have to be right. Besides, everyone has a different opinion. So why not have yours and let them have theirs.

Thinking that you can change others. You can only inspire and motivate people to be their best selves to some extent. You cannot change other people, you can only change yourself. It is not your fault that other people are the way they are. We all have free will to do what we want with ourselves and it’s not your responsibility to try and change that. Only they can truly change themselves.

To conclude,

So, which of these toxic thoughts will you let go starting from today? what other toxic thoughts are holding you back and interfering with your well-being and productivity? How many “could-have”, “would-have”, “should-have” and “if-only” statements are part of your inner voice? How many times have you replayed in your head a conversation or situation that pained you or that hasn’t even occurred yet? Are your goals and purpose aligned with your thoughts? How distorted is your thinking about the future? Are you forming a personal identity around an illness or condition? Focusing on these questions can help you narrow down to your toxic thinking patterns.

It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in negative, toxic thoughts and let little things get you down. Make time each day for a mindfulness meditation. Focus on your breathing and being present in the moment. Identify your toxic thoughts that are interfering with your personal and professional goal-striving. Accept and let go of them to clear and detox your mind of the negative, so you can stay healthy, optimistic and productive.

Letting go of toxic thoughts and people who bring a lot of negativity to your life, are major steps towards being happy.”

⁃ Neeraj Singhvi