Dr. Laurie Carr and her UCLA colleagues used MRI tests while volunteers mirrored facial expressions that they were shown, including happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust, and fear. When the volunteers observed these pictures, their brains became active in the insula, an oval-shaped region that translates our experiences into feelings.
The MRIs showed that as the volunteers imitated expressions, their brain stimulation was in the exact same area — but the neural activation was significantly greater. This suggests that, with practice, we can improve our empathy skills.
Having empathetic role models and experiencing our own emotions can help shape our understanding of other people’s feelings. With or without these personal experiences, studies have shown that people can learn empathy skills and improve their ability to connect with others. This involves mastering three essential skills:
1. Learn to listen. The best conversationalists are people who know how to listen well. To do this, you must put aside distractions — both external (email, text messaging) and internal (random thoughts, worries) — and truly focus attention on the other person.
Think of the last time you tried to explain how great or terrible your day was while your friend glanced down at her phone to read a text message from someone else. Sometimes, if we are excited about what someone is saying, we may interrupt the speaker to toss in our own thoughts. But by doing this, we run the risk of frustrating the speaker, possibly causing him to stop expressing how he really feels.
Good listeners have self-control — they do not allow their minds to wander, and they don’t interrupt.
2. Recognize how other people are feeling. Both verbal and nonverbal expressions can convey what other people are feeling. Unfortunately, we don’t always recognize these expressions because we are distracted or self-absorbed. Simply being patient can help us focus more on another person’s emotional expressions. When someone is communicating intense emotions, it often takes them longer to put words together.
To increase your awareness, keep in mind some of these methods of nonverbal communication:
• Body language. How we stand, walk, or cross our arms and legs can convey mood and attitude; styles of waving, nodding, and other gestures. A grin, frown, or furrowed brow can tell a lot about what someone feels.
• Eye contact. A gaze can communicate a wide range of emotions, such as anger, passion, or sadness. Looking into someone’s eyes while they speak usually tells the person that you are interested in what they are saying. Looking around the room or over the person’s shoulder suggests the opposite. However, too much eye contact can seem intrusive or inappropriate.
• Touch. Placing your palm on someone’s shoulder can be reassuring; using both hands for a handshake can convey warmth. Such gestures are often culturally based. For instance, many Europeans kiss both cheeks when greeting each other.
3. Let others know you understand. It’s one thing to grasp another person’s point of view, but the true power of empathy comes from communicating that understanding back to the other person. Try restating what you perceive as the other person’s perspective using simple statements such as: “Let me make sure I understand you . . . ” or “Tell me if I have this right . . . ”
Asking for additional details will show that you’re interested in knowing more about the person’s situation and emotional experience.Keep in mind that, despite the current trend toward greater isolation and empathy deficits, our brains are programmed to bring us together as social beings.
We all have the capacity to improve our empathy skills and imagine what someone else may be feeling, thereby improving our relationships with others and enhancing our quality of life. The sooner we start working on our empathy skills, the more connected and better we will feel, and our mind health will benefit from the experience.
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