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How to have more empathy (but not too much)

Posted May 10

Empathy is a powerful emotion, improving people's worst days and encouraging cooperation within diverse communities. But some people aren't very good at it.

"If all you ever saw was people running away or suppressing their feelings that will seem like a very sensible thing to do," said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, to the Wall Street Journal this week. "But if you saw people respond in a generous and responsive way to other people that will seem like the thing to do."

Empathy, or sensitivity to the positive and negative emotions someone else is experiencing, is instinctive, to a certain extent, as the Deseret News reported last year. However, it also has to be nurtured in order for someone to reach their full potential as an empathizer.

"Being able to imagine walking in someone else's shoes takes work," the article noted.

Stumbling through a trial-and-error period in order to improve your empathy skills can pay off in surprising ways, The Huffington Post reported. The emotion helps us build new connections with other people and become better leaders. It can even reduce physical pain.

Empathy also strengthens our relationships with friends and loved ones, even when someone still has a lot to learn about being supportive, the Journal reported.

One study showed that "both men and women were happier when their partner simply made an effort to show emotional support. It didn't matter as much if their partner read their emotions correctly," according to the article.

However, it is possible to go overboard with empathy and experience burnout. Clergy members and health care workers often receive training related to this phenomenon, the Deseret News reported.

"Individuals can learn to set boundaries, protecting their own mental health while continuing to be with others in their times of need," the article noted. Kristen Provost-Switzer said she liked to meditate and go for runs after long days of serving as a hospital chaplain.

If you're looking to improve your empathy skills, experts suggest striking up conversations with new people, paying attention to what you have in common with others instead of what's different and being a good listener, The Huffington Post reported.

Aspiring empathizers can also try another person's life on for size in order to hone their skills, according to an article on empathy from the Greater Good Science Center.

"If you are religiously observant, try a 'God Swap,' attending the services of faiths different from your own," it noted. Or "spend your next vacation living and volunteering in a village in a developing country."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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