Five ways to expand your empathy

It is usual, at this time of year, to make a series of earnest New Year’s Resolutions which – by tradition – you resolutely fail to keep. Why not try promising yourself some New Year’s Explorations instead and widen your personal horizons.

Expanding your empathy might offer just what you are looking for. Empathising is an avant-garde form of travel in which you step into the shoes of another person and see the world from their perspective.  It is the ultimate adventure holiday – far more challenging than a bungee jump off Victoria Falls or trekking solo across the Gobi desert.

Here are my five top tips for transforming yourself into an empathetic adventurer over the coming months.


Curiosity in action on the streets of London.

One of the best ways to develop your capacity to look through the eyes of others and escape the confines of your own worldview, is to have regular conversations with strangers, especially those outside your usual social circle. This doesn’t mean a brief chat about the weather. Rather, it involves a mutual exchange of thoughts on your most important beliefs and experiences, and – crucially – an attempt to understand the world inside the head of the other person. We are confronted by strangers every day – the heavily tattooed guy who delivers your post, the dignified elderly woman across the road who always wears a red beret, the new Thai employee who eats his lunch alone in the office canteen, the woman who sits in the underpass all day preening her dog. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with a stranger once a week. All it requires is courage.


Some bosses are not known for their empathetic sensitivity.

Ask yourself this question: When has somebody failed to empathise with me, and what difference has it made? Expanding your empathetic imagination requires recognising the impact that empathy – or its absence – has had on your own life. Perhaps you have a nasty boss who has criticised you for missing a deadline without considering that you are using every spare moment to care for your mother who has Alzheimer’s. Or maybe your partner enjoys spending each Sunday playing five-a-side football with friends, but just can’t see that it burdens you with yet another day of doing the childcare, just when you really need a break. Such experiences – when another person fails to take into account our feelings, beliefs, or daily realities – can upset us, make us angry and diminish our self-worth. Unless you happen to be a rare empathetic saint, you can also ask yourself a second question: When have I failed to empathise with other people, and why? And then a third: When have others empathised with me, and why did it matter? Exploring this triumvirate of questions is sure to help sensitise your empathetic soul.


Take the initiative and call your sister.

The film The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy features an ingenious device called the Point-of-View Gun. When it is fired at someone, it causes them to see things from the perspective of the person who pulled the trigger. This singular weapon was designed at the request of the Intergalactic Consortium of Angry Housewives, who were tired of ending every discussion with their husbands with the statement, ‘You just don’t get it, do you!’ There is probably somebody in your family at whom you would dearly love to fire the Point-of-View Gun. But there is equally likely to be someone who would wish to fire it at you. The task before you is to identify a family member you have failed to empathise with and make an effort to do something about it. Give them a phone call or take them out for a meal and do your best to listen and understand where they are coming from. Try to get inside their skin, just like an actor attempts to inhabit their character, and grasp all the nuances of their thoughts and emotions. You might find that your irritating sister or heartless uncle do not deserve the harsh judgement you usually reserve for them.


What is Helen Keller thinking?

There is nothing wrong with a little armchair empathy – sitting down with a good book and letting it take you into the mental landscape and experiences of someone whose life is utterly different from your own. This is ideally done through first-person narratives, where you can hear the voice of the author or main character and let it become one with your own. These are five of my favourite empathy books, which will take you on unusual journeys into other minds:

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997): enter the world of a man who is completely paralysed and can only communicate by blinking his left eye.

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933): find out how to become a tramp and what you can learn as a kitchen assistant in a fancy hotel.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown (1970): a history of the American West as told from the perspective of Native Americans such as Sitting Bull and Geronimo.

May the Lord and His Mercy Be Kind to Belfast by Tony Parker (1993): interviews with ordinary and extraordinary people about the conflict in Northern Ireland, from bus-drivers to terrorists.

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903): autobiography of the deaf-blind writer who reveals the beauties of the world by expanding our appreciation of the senses.


Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticise him.

We all have prejudices or make false assumptions about others. These are frequently based on the collective labels we apply to people – like ‘single mothers’ or ‘Muslim extremists’ – without delving into their individuality and uniqueness. One of the most rewarding ways to expand your empathy is to gain direct experience of their lives, putting into practice the Native American proverb, ‘Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticise him’. How can we do this? It requires pinpointing the individual or social group who is the target of your strongest prejudices, and then inventing a way of stepping into their moccasins. So if you disdain people who live off the welfare state, spend a week trying to survive on Job Seeker’s Allowance, which currently stands at £64.30. If you detest wealthy bankers, see if you can shadow one of them at work for a day. If you are fervently religious, you might treat yourself to attending the services of religions different from your own. You get the picture. This experiential empathising is likely to be etched on your skin and memory forever.

These five ideas should provide a stimulating itinerary for your New Year’s Explorations. They may lead you to start new friendships, shift your values, rethink your ambitions and perhaps expand your moral universe. But there’s no need to let your travels stop there. Next time you are wondering where to go on holiday you might decide against a vacation in the sun and instead take the option of an escape into empathy.

8 thoughts on “Five ways to expand your empathy

  1. Therapeutic psychology has identified a small category of people they call ‘over-empathisers’. It is considered a problem because this type of person is too worried about hurting others to get their own needs met. I can see that, if it were constant, a high degree of empathy might cause problems of this sort, but, as your blog suggests, the usual issue is prejudice and lack of empathy. If empathy is met with empathy, then you would think everyone’s needs would be met more frequently and those needs would be expressed in a less hostile and demanding way.

    So business may be open to the idea but it is peculiar how most mainstream psychology is pushing a vision of mental health that is essentially egotistic and instinct led on one hand and excessively passive and conformist on the other.

    comments from psychologists (or anyone else) welcome….

  2. Dear Roman:
    Love this–small steps that can accumulate into a quiet global revolution. I first discovered empathy as a taught skill via Gad Czudner’s Small Criminals Among Us, and use this with my teacher candidates.

  3. Pingback: My Verse
  4. A great post, but I take issue with a couple of points.
    One: It is not so easy to act on our (natural or cultivated) curiosity about strangers. If what is required is “a mutual exchange of thoughts on your most important beliefs and experiences”, how can you work a brief conversation into a deep & meaningful. There are at least 2 inhibitors with someone new – 1) there is no trust established, so many people won’t want to exchange personal views, and 2) you don’t want to be seen to be prying. It’s a fine line between asking meaningful and just plain nosey questions.
    Secondly, how on earth do you get to shadow a banker for a day! Even if the individual would agree, their firm would not! I don’t think that’s a realistic suggestion.

  5. Louise Arkles, take it from someone who knows, it is absolutely amazing how much a stranger will tell you in a brief encounter actually but you have to actually be interested and be curious about that person. If this is genuine then it wouldn’t appear nosey. That is a part of having empathy. Perhaps you are not getting the point of it.

    I do think people who are not innately empathetic can be more empathetic but maybe they also have to be the type of person who is naturally inclined to question the status quo. Most people just accept that the world is dog-eat-dog, that we will get nowhere from having empathy, and that it is pointless if we want to be ‘successful’ in life. Life is hard enough as it is for everyone with personal and financial struggles, sadness from loss and death etc, if we all had abit more empathy the world would definitely be a better place and actually more successful.

  6. I’ve just found this wonderful website courtesy of an item on Roman Krznaric in the Oxford University magazine ‘Oxford Today’ (Vol 22, No 2).

    I live in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, Australia. The main town is Lismore. Lismore Library has a ‘Living Book’ scheme, where you ‘borrow’ a person for half an hour and talk with them about themselves and whatever ‘category’ they represent – Aboriginal, farmer, person with a disability, Buddhist, vegan etc. The idea behind the scheme is empathy building though personal contact, and gaining knowledge and understanding. I think libraries in the Netherlands were the innovators.

    Incidentally, I noted the other item on Jo Parry and the IRA Brighton bomber, and know about the Forgiveness Project through my sister-in-law, Marian Partington – her sister Lucy was one of the victims of Fred and Rosemary West.

Leave a Reply