Building empathy in a fractured world

Building empathy in a fractured world

You’re sprawled on the couch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, caught up in the thrall of a captivating movie. The main character, after battling adversity, finally reaches their moment of triumph. And you? You feel an unexplainable rush of exhilaration. 

Oddly, it feels as though their victory is your victory. Or perhaps it’s a heart-wrenching scene where they crumble under the weight of loss. And despite being a spectator, your heart aches as if the loss were your own. 

Ever wondered why this happens? That, as you may very well know, is the magic of empathy at work. It’s a powerful emotion—a bridge of shared feelings that, for a moment, blurs the boundaries between self and others.

In our world of countless cultures, beliefs, and perspectives, understanding each other can feel like deciphering an alien language. And in these moments of difference, empathy acts as our universal translator, fostering connection, understanding, and compassion. 

But there’s more to empathy than meets the eye. And that’s at the heart of the conversation with Kristina Mänd-Lakhiani and empathy expert Dr. Jamil Zaki on Honest Conversations.

Dr. Jamil Zaki is a distinguished psychology professor at Stanford University. At the helm of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab, he dedicates his research to unraveling the mysteries of empathy and fostering it more effectively. Not just confined to academia, his insightful writings on empathy have caught the attention of prestigious outlets like the New York Times and the New Yorker.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy, simply put, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s feeling the echo of someone else’s emotions within your own heart. 

Here are some empathy examples: 

  • The involuntary tear that escapes your eyes when you see someone crying
  • The instinctive smile when you watch someone laugh their heart out, and
  • That electric surge of triumph you feel in your bones when you’re amidst a crowd watching your favorite team clinch the championship title, even though you’re not the one on the field. 

This extraordinary human capacity isn’t a fixed trait—something we’re born with or not. Rather, according to Dr. Zaki, a renowned professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of The War for Kindness, it’s a skill that can be trained, honed, and developed over time.

What’s more, empathy is more than just understanding; it’s also about shared feelings. 

Interestingly, one study found that 98% of people have the ability to empathize (so if you’re someone who lacks empathy, know that you’re not alone and there’s hope for you yet!). This shows that empathy isn’t just for the select few; it’s a universal trait deeply ingrained in our human nature.

Empathy vs. kindness vs. compassion

In our everyday conversations, words like “empathy,” “kindness,” and “compassion” are often used together. However, each of these terms represents a distinct aspect of our emotional responses and interactions with others. 

In his conversation with Kristina, Dr. Zaki breaks it down:

  • Empathy. He explains that empathy “acts as an umbrella term for three ways we respond to the emotions of others”: emotional empathy (when we share or mirror the feelings of others), cognitive empathy (the detective work we do to understand what’s going on in someone else’s mind), and compassion.
  • Compassion: Unlike the first two types of empathy, compassion goes beyond merely understanding or sharing emotions—it’s about fostering a sense of feeling worthy in someone. It’s the longing for others to feel better, especially when they’re immersed in suffering.
  • Kindness, on the other hand, goes beyond just feeling and understanding; it involves taking actions to improve someone else’s well-being. It’s the helping hand extended, the comforting word spoken, or even the surprise coffee bought for a friend on a tough day.

What’s the connection between them? 

“When we feel empathy, we’re much more likely to act kind,” Dr. Zaki explains. “People who feel empathy volunteer more; they’re more likely to donate to charity, and they’re more likely to help strangers.”

Understanding these nuances can help you navigate your interactions more mindfully. It encourages you not only to feel what others are feeling but also to act in ways that uplift them.

Why Is Empathy Important?

Chances are, you’re well aware of how big of a deal empathy is. But the question is why?

Here are a few reasons:

  • Empathy fosters social connections and nurtures relationships.
  • It acts as a magic wand, turning strangers into friends and friends into soulmates.
  • It’s also the glue that holds society together, promoting cooperation, understanding, and mutual respect. 
  • Seeing past our differences and finding common ground in our shared humanity is possible through empathy.

Furthermore, when it comes to your personal growth and mental health, there are numerous empathy benefits. It helps reduce stress, fosters resilience, and promotes a sense of belonging and self-worth.

According to a study by the American Psychological Association, individuals who show high levels of empathy tend to report higher levels of happiness and success, further highlighting the importance of this wonderful trait.

How to Show Empathy: 3 Actionable Tips From Dr. Jamil Zaki

Someone you know may be hurting. Or there’s genuine joy to be expressed when they share good news. But finding the right words, at times, can be like a needle in a haystack.

Undoubtedly, you may have found yourself in situations where you grasp the emotions but fumble when it comes to displaying your understanding. It’s like having a beautiful melody in your mind, but when you try to hum it out…well, let’s just say that cats screeching in an alleyway might sound more harmonious! 

So how can we bridge this gap between feeling and demonstrating empathy? Dr. Jamil Zaki has some insightful suggestions.

1. Empathize with purpose

It’s easy to empathize with those we love and care about, but how about aiming that empathy a little further? 

“Empathy evolved as one of humans’ vital survival skills,” says Dr. Zaki in a The Partnership article. “It is only through our foray into the modern world that we have lost touch with our evolutionary empathy. Deeply empathic people tend to be environmentally responsible, but our caring instincts are short-sighted and dissolve across space and time, making it harder for us to deal with things that haven’t happened yet.”

So direct your empathy towards those who are often overlooked or marginalized, such as the homeless, refugees, or those in distress. 

But don’t stop there. Try to understand those who irritate, anger, or even scare you.

Remember, understanding doesn’t mean agreement. It simply means you’re attempting to see the world from their perspective. This intentional act of empathy can lead to greater tolerance and patience, qualities we could all do with a little more of.

2. Stretch your empathy

Empathy isn’t a well that runs dry, nor is it an exclusive club. It’s more like a muscle that grows stronger and more flexible the more you use it. 

“We’re not stuck at one level of empathy throughout our lives,” explains Dr. Zaki. “Certain experiences, like a hateful political climate, can atrophy it; others, like having to manage two very different parents, can grow it, and we can grow our empathy on purpose through practice.”

So challenge yourself and break the people-pleasing patterns. Venture outside your comfort zone and attempt to empathize with individuals who are completely different from you. This could be someone from a different culture, race, religious background, or even political standpoint. 

And by doing so, you are broadening your understanding of the world. This act fosters a deeper sense of interconnectedness.

3. Practice makes perfect

“Consistency is the key to mastery,” as the saying goes. The more you do it, the better you get. 

Much like brushing your teeth or having your morning coffee, make empathy an integral part of your day and your character, much like brushing your teeth or having your morning coffee. 

How, you ask? Dr. Zaki gives a few simple yet powerful examples, including:

  • Be more curious. Instead of assuming you know how someone feels, ask them about their experiences, thoughts, and feelings during your next conversation.
  • Engage in perspective-taking. Try to understand the perspective of the other person. This broadens your own understanding and fosters a sense of “being you” in your empathetic interactions.
  • Make it easier for others to empathize with you. Instead of asking others to work harder to understand you, try to be “a little bit easier to understand,” according to Dr. Zaki. “We can communicate more clearly, and we can become easier targets of empathy.”

The thing is, empathy is a vital ingredient in the recipe for a harmonious society. Yes, it requires some effort, but the payoff—a world filled with more understanding, kindness, and connection—is absolutely worth it.

Powering Up Your Heart’s GPS

If there’s one truth to embrace in life, it’s this: being you—authentically, wholly, unabashedly you —is the best gift you can give to the world. Empathy, in all its wonderful hues, is an integral part of this true self. It’s the cord that binds our shared humanity, connecting us in profound and beautiful ways. 

This invisible bond isn’t just about understanding or sharing feelings; it’s about acknowledging your worthiness to experience and express these feelings. And in doing so, you’re not just a people-pleaser; you become a catalyst for happiness, success, and, most importantly, unity.

If you want to understand more about cultivating empathy, you can watch the full interview on Kristina’s YouTube channel.

Episode resources:

Dr. Jamil Zaki | Instagram⁠

Dr. Jamil Zaki | Facebook⁠

Dr. Jamil Zaki | Linkedin

Dr. Jamil Zaki | Website

Tatiana Azman

Tatiana Azman is a content writer for Mindvalley and a Certified Life Coach. With a background in spa and wellness as well as being a cancer survivor, she's constantly on the lookout for natural, effective ways that help with one's overall well-being.

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