4. Practise Empathy & Loving-Kindness

Think back to a moment when you felt completely heard, accepted and understood by another person, a moment when you felt connected to them and felt safe. This is the experience of empathy and creating empathy is a key skill to learn for anyone who is committed to their emotional well-being.
 
Empathy is the ability to connect to and understand another person. It’s the process of allowing yourself to be fully present with them in a way that enables you to fall into resonance with one another. When you are in state of empathy, you are able to get a sense of their world, without losing your own authentic sense of self. It’s not about agreeing with that person, but demonstrating that you understand them and that you willing to enter their world. Empathy is of course a vital skill to have when developing healthy, nourishing relationships.
 
Most of us are so caught up in our own mental world and issues that we rarely have the presence or time to truly attend to the experience of another person. What’s more unless we have started to learn how to manage our thoughts and emotions and come to a level of compassionate self-acceptance, it’s harder to truly be their for someone else. But like much of what I have shared so far it’s a skill that can be learnt and one that gets easier the more you practice it.
 

Tips for Developing Empathy

 

Make connection a priority
 
Imagine the following scenario. The man/woman gets home from work, he’s had a hard day, he’s stressed and all he wants to do is relax. He shouts hi to his partner and sits down and starts watching TV. His partner has also had a hard day. She (lets assume it’s a she, it could be a he) has been looking after the kids, had to deal with a couple of domestic emergencies and brave the supermarket. They are tired and exhausted. So when their partner comes home and doesn’t connect with her what happens. She storms in their and starts criticising him or she switches into passive-aggressive tactics. Either way they are disconnected. One way to transform and enrich your personal relationships is to make connection a priority every time you spend time away from your partner. The rule is therefore when you come together, you don’t talk about problems, the day you had, you immediately come together, hug/kiss, say ‘I have missed you’ and exchange small talk for a few minutes. This is about reconnecting and falling into harmony with one another, following which you can then each do what you need to do. This process of connection is a real tonic for relationships
 
Empathic Listening
 
Next time someone starts speaking to you, take a couple of slow breaths and give your full attention to what they are saying with the intention of hearing and truly understanding what they are saying and where they are coming from. Avoid the temptation to think about what they are saying, just listen. Once they have finished paraphrase what you have heard them say and feed that back to them. This is empathic listening and is at the heart of the respectful communication process that I shared in the how to resolve conflict section
 
Enter Their World
 
Think of someone you don’t like. Now take 5 minutes to imagine that you are them. Close your eyes and imagine you have lived their entire life and are now living their life. Avoid the tendency to judge, hold an intention to truly understand why they are the way they are. Trust your imagination in presenting to you images and a sense of what has happened to them in their lifetime. Really allow yourself to get a feel for what it must be like to be them.  Once you have finished this process, imagine that they are now in front of you – notice how different you feel towards them. More often than not when my clients do this process they experience compassion. Compassion often follows understanding.
 
Stay open and positive
 
A real easy way to kill empathy is to shoot down someone else perspective or opinion, patronise, disagree routinely, interrupt frequently, change the subject, give unwanted advice, criticise, be insincere, withhold your truth, use sarcasm or play games / manipulate others. There are of course many other toxic behaviours - see the introductory section to this module. If you tend to use one or more of these, next time you start to use it, switch to being open and positive, by either acknowledging what the other person has said (empathic listening) or saying something positive in a way that is sincere. Changing toxic behaviours to nourishing ones takes time and patience, but it’s an essential component of creating empathy.
 
Practice Loving-Kindness
 
This is one of my favourite meditations and one that can help you develop empathy, open your heart and develop and deepen a loving relationship with others. One research study found that people who practise loving-kindness on a daily basis experienced an increase in emotions such as love, joy, gratitude, contentment and hope, as well as benefiting from an increase in mindfulness, self-acceptance, positive relationships and good physical health, as well as increased life satisfaction.
 
There are a variety of different approaches to loving-kindness, but I am going to share the one with you that I use with some of my clients. You might want to start by reading through the instructions a couple of times so that you can do this with your eyes closed. Alternatively you could follow the instructions on a guided meditation CD. See Resources
 
  • Find a quiet, comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed for at least 15 minutes
  • You are going to start with the same instructions as the self-love meditation (module seven), focus on someone for whom you have a deep appreciation and love. Allow those feelings to build up within you, especially around the area of the heart
  • Now gently allow the loving-kindness to flow into every part of your body. Include any sensations that might feel uncomfortable. Continue until your body is full of the energy of love and appreciation.
  • Now turn your attention to any thoughts, feelings and images that you might have. Send that loving energy to all of them, welcome each and everyone of them as equals, be unconditional in your sharing of your love. Breathe deeply and allow this process to happen.
  • If your mind wanders or if you feel tense, return your attention to your breath and continue following the instructions with a lightness and gentleness.
  • Now turn your attention to the whole of your body-mind. Again with gentleness allow loving-kindness to envelop and permeate your body-mind, allow yourself to experience and enjoy the preciousness of this moment.
  • Now visualise or sense someone close to you who is suffering. On your next in-breath take in this persons suffering – allow their dark energy of suffering to ride the in-breath into your heart where it will dissolve completely. Don’t worry about taking on board their energy, the heart will dissolve it fully.
  • On the out-breath breath out loving-kindness to that person, see it entering them.
  • Now keep repeating the in-breath and out-breath as described for a few minutes. Then ask yourself is there anything you can do to help and support them? Allow an answer to come.
  • Now imagine all of your family and friends standing or sitting in front of you. Breathe in their suffering and allow it to dissolve in your heart. Now allow loving-kindness to emanate out of you (on the out-breath) and flow into them. Continue for a few minutes.
  • Now imagine a group consisting of all of the people who you don’t like or don’t get on well with. Breathe in their suffering and allow it to dissolve in your heart. Now allow loving-kindness to emanate out of you (on the out-breath) and flow into them. Continue for a few minutes.
  • Now imagine all living beings, you can include the natural world as well. Breathe in their suffering and allow it to dissolve in your heart. Now allow loving-kindness to emanate out of you (on the out-breath) and flow into them. Continue for a few minutes.
  • Once you have finished take a minute or two to enjoy what you are feeling and to  notice how your heart has softened
 
When starting out with this meditation it might feel false or uncomfortable particularly if we aren’t used to doing anything like this. My advice is to persist with it despite those feelings and thoughts, because within a couple of sessions (based on my experience with teaching this too clients), you should really start to notice a real shift in the way you feel and relate to others. Obviously you can use it as often or as infrequently as you want, my advice, for the first few weeks however is to try it on most days of the week.

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