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Empathy and Compassion

Empathy and Compassion

•Goal: Empathy and compassion, while not the same thing, are related. Empathy is a gateway to compassion. It’s understanding how someone feels, and trying to imagine how that might feel for you — it’s a mode of relating. Compassion takes it further. It’s feeling what that person is feeling, holding it, accepting it, and taking some kind of action. Compassion has been shown to help prevent burnout.
•Technique: Cultivating empathy can be achieved in a number of ways, including trying to better understand where the other person is coming from and what their experience is like. This is the idea of “walking in their shoes.” Assuming that you do not know all of the story and approaching the other person with a gentle curiosity can help you begin to gain empathy. You can also practice active listening. This involves listening to each word that the other person says, imagining the driving emotions behind what is being said, and regularly feeding back what is being heard to the person speaking. Active listening encourages us to tune in—and in doing this, we can connect more deeply. The more you practice active listening, the better you’ll be at reading a person’s emotions through their words, tone, and micro expressions. Micro expressions are the tiny but telling facial expressions that occur during a fraction of a second. Becoming an active listener increases empathy levels, and it also helps to create positive feelings in the person who's communicating with us. Additionally, meditating specifically on compassion helps us to become more empathetic people. A study showed that our brains can be rewired over time to be more empathetic through compassion meditation. Compassion meditation or Loving-Kindness meditations are forms of meditation that asks you to focus your thoughts on wishing well-being for others. In these meditation practice, one can silently repeat phrases to others as a way of acknowledging them and our own interconnectedness.
•Evidence: We know that empathic people have more satisfying relationships and perform better in the workplace. People who are actively listened to feel as though they are more fully understood and patients do better with empathetic physicians. Compassionate physicians demonstrate lower burnout rates and receive higher patient satisfaction scores.
•Suggestion for use: Active listening to help cultivate empathy can be practiced any time and includes using continuing responses, such as “Uh-huh” and nodding; repeating back to the person what you have heard them say; actively and deeply listening and carefully summarizing in a gentle and open way to them what you have heard. It can also involve mirroring their behaviors and words and asking for clarification. To help cultivate compassion, the use of compassion meditation can be helpful.  It’s easy and highly portable. You can silently repeat phrases like, “May you be happy; may you be safe; may you be at ease; may you be free from suffering,” to the individuals for whom you are trying to cultivate compassion. This plants the seeds of compassion, and can lead to acts of compassion.
•Potential barriers and how to overcome: If you are not accustomed to active listening, it can feel slow and perhaps tedious. Thus, practice is important. It is helpful also to imagine that you are hearing what the other person has to say for the first time and to be curious and appreciative when interacting with them. Take your time and be intentional – really try to see things from their perspective and understand where they are coming from. It may feel silly to silently practice compassion meditation, but again, using this skill can be highly effective and can promote compassionate behaviors. Practicing a loving kindness mediation for someone close to you whom you like may be a way to begin this practice. You can then widen your circle of compassion meditations to others in need or for whom you have less positive feelings. These may initially be difficult, but will become easier with time and practice.