Experts Say Empathy Is a Trait You Can Strengthen Over Time
Plus, learn why it's more important than ever before to exercise your empathetic side.
Between the coronavirus pandemic and protests surrounding the murders of unarmed black men and women, empathy is a trait that's more crucial now than ever before; it's what helps us understand what other people are going through and offer support during emotionally taxing times. "Learning to regulate our emotions and have the capacity to tolerate negativity is very, very important for mature empathy," Sarah Konrath, an associate professor of philanthropic studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, tells CNN.
What, exactly, is empathy, and why is so essential that we all have a strong handle on the trait? Empathy is "the ability to perceive accurately what another person is feeling," said Jennifer Lerner, a psychological scientist and the Thornton F. Bradshaw professor of public policy, decision science, and management at the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts. Without it, you'll be unable to support those around you.
Lerner tells CNN that before we are able to express sympathy, we must make an effort to understand what someone is feeling and how we can help. Scientists say that you can interpret what someone is feeling not just based on their words, but by their facial expression, tone of voice, and posture. "Empathy does not require that someone share the feeling of another although it may sometimes involve that," Lerner said
Researchers say that empathy is both an inherent trait and a skill that can be learned, which means you can work at become more empathetic over time. If someone is going through a particularly challenging time, your instinct may be to turn away and avoid the conflict. However, experts say that you should lean into those emotions and learn how to show more empathy for what someone is going through. While exercising empathy can be emotionally exhausting, the benefit is that the people around you will feel more supported and loved. You might also feel more united with others, have the ability to resolve conflicts more quickly, and even achieve greater satisfaction at work, Lerner told CNN.
"Empathy is such an important biological system in our bodies that, of course, there's going to be some sort of benefits right back at the empathic person," Konrath said. "Being able to experience a hormonal change that would allow you to continue to care for somebody is very important for human survival."