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Home / Columns / From apathy to empathy in just three simple steps

From apathy to empathy in just three simple steps

Empathy, which for years people believed was an attribute that you were either born with or lacked -- can be taught.

columns Updated: Jul 12, 2015 20:45 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
Empathy, which for years people believed was an attribute that you were either born with or lacked -- can be taught. (Shutterstock)
Empathy, which for years people believed was an attribute that you were either born with or lacked -- can be taught. (Shutterstock)( )

Egocentricity, high stress tolerance, lack of empathy, focus, ruthlessness, no remorse... These psychopathic attributes either make you a highly successful mass-murderer, spy or, as new research shows, a CEO, lawyer or media professional. Psychopaths lack the ability to identify with others or feel their pain, but all the other mentioned traits -- charm, egocentricity, persuasiveness, ruthlessness and focus -- help self-contained people leave friends and colleagues behind get ahead in spotlight-driven professions.

But in the real world where people are dependent on living and working with others, empathy -- defined as the ability to understand or feel what another is experiencing or going through -- is indispensable for optimal functioning. In personal relationships and professional interactions, it helps build trust, encourages communication and lowers conflict and hostility.

It's often not easy to be empathetic when people around you are self-righteous and quick to judge others for trespasses, real and imagined. Often, you don't want to get involved. Or you simply can't be bothered. Yet empathy, which for years people believed was an attribute that you were either born with or lacked -- can be taught, shows new research.

Brain training
Training repeat offenders who commit antisocial crimes -- such as harassment, violence, theft and criminal damage -- to better read facial expressions helps lower criminal behaviour and reduces violent crime, report researchers from Cardiff University in Wales in the journal PLOS One. The study recruited serial offenders who, shows past research, often cannot recognise fear in the faces of people they hurt or realise the consequences of their crime. Since they can't tell their behaviour is wrong or causing pain, they feel no need to correct it. People with antisocial personality disorder have a higher chance of developing psychotic illness, depression and drug abuse.

To find out if learning to pick up emotional cues would make children less cruel, researchers used a computer-based programme that teaches people to recognise facial expressions. The system was originally developed in the US to help people with brain injuries relearn the rules of social interactions.

Lower violence
For the Cardiff study, researchers trained half of a group of 50 boys aged 12-18 years who had been convicted of a crime to recognise happiness, sadness, fear and anger in facial expressions. They also made a note of the crimes that all the boys had committed in the past, and those that were committed in the six months following training.

The study found boys who received training were better able recognise fear, anger and sadness in others' faces than those who had no training. While all of the study participants committed fewer offences than in the six months before the training – probably because they were monitored – those who'd had training were far less violent. Not only did they commit fewer crimes, but their crimes were more likely to be theft rather than physical aggression or other forms of violence.

Developing empathy is not that difficult, if you know how. Here are the three simple rules to emotionally connect with the people around you.

Get curious, not inquisitive
Curiosity is inclusive and makes it easier for us to talk to strangers, taking us out of our comfort zone and exposing us to points of view other than our own. It allows us to get inside the skin of another person and makes us less judgmental. It challenges preconceptions and discover commonalities and prevents us to question the use of collective labels to define people and communities.

Be non-judgmental
Avoid jumping into conclusions and making judgemental statements that may distress others. Most people don't open up to others because they need answers. They usually want to use the listener as a sounding board to help sort out their own muddled thoughts and emotions. You don't have to agree or accept their assessment, but outright criticism will just make them withdraw. Instead, listen and engage without judgment.

Listen, and open up
Listen closely so you can grasp non-verbal cues that tell you the emotional state of the person you're talking to. Sharing the lives of others also prompts introspection and makes you question your own thoughts and beliefs. It also helps you open up and share your own thoughts and experiences, which is not only cathartic but also helps build relationships.

Psychopath Spotter

Jobs most likely to attract psychopaths
1. CEO
2. Lawyer
3. Media (Television/Radio)
4. Salesperson
5. Surgeon
6. Journalist
7. Police officer
8. Clergy person
9. Chef
10. Civil servant

Jobs least attractive to psychopaths
1. Care aide
2. Nurse
3. Therapist
4. Craftsperson
5. Beautician/Stylist
6. Charity worker
7. Teacher
8. Creative artist
9. Doctor
10. Accountant

Source: The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success by Kevin Dutton