It can be challenging to develop empathy — but if you can swing it, the benefits for your well-being are significant. As the only liberal Democrat in a family of Republicans, I’ve heatedly sparred with my relatives over politics or sat in seething silence at the beliefs they espouse. A political spat with my mom went epic earlier this year when she blocked me from her iPhone. Even though I felt justified in my anger, I sent an apology via my brother to patch the tear, not only because my love for her trumps my convictions, but because I suddenly imagined how I’d feel if my 3-year-old daughter grew up to be a modern day Alex P. Keaton touting the beauty of the free market and an insatiable love of money. Under what conditions would I ever block her? How would that make her feel? How would I feel if I blocked her? Suddenly, I pictured my 68-year-old mother sitting at home 3,000 miles away in California knotted up with anger and sadness, and I had to reach out.
In a roundabout way, I was able to drum up enough empathy to forge our bond anew — and it benefited both of us. Several studies have demonstrated the health benefits of empathy, including prosocial behavior, social closeness, and improved clinical outcomes for patients. This month, a study in Translational Issues of Psychological Science found that 648 people, who rated high on the Low Agreeableness scale (ie. people prone to conflict and hostility) reported a reduction in depression and higher rates of life satisfaction after practicing compassion exercises over a three-week period.
The lead author of the study, Myriam Mongrain, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada, provided six microsteps we can implement (just ahead of the midterms!) to help us empathize with people whose personalities, beliefs and/or conduct might not sit well with us.
Proceed with Open Communication
If someone’s values are repugnant to you, try and work your way to the fundamental emotion underlying their belief system, Mongrain says. Getting at their primal feelings will humanize them and make them more relatable. “It will require open communication,” Mongrain says, “where you’ll agree on a certain level of respect for each other’s opinion. Then, you’ll try and dig a little deeper into why they have a particular attitude or belief.”
Think Globally, Not Individually
Mongrain recommends thinking about the person in their full cultural context, which will require enough curiosity — also a vital component of empathy — to educate yourself about the historical, familial, and cultural contexts underpinning their style, character, or convictions. “An older person,” she says, for example, “has a very different history and set of experiences. They grew up with different doctrines driving their worldview.” When you look at a person’s life in full context, who they are and how they behave starts to make sense.
Respond with Love Even When Being Hosed with Hate
I can’t count the number of fiery texts I’ve sent to my brother — a police officer in Carlsbad, CA with political views that differ from my own — but he always responds the same way: “I love you, and I respect your opinions and I’ll always be here for you.” When I’ve asked him why he won’t engage, he says he refuses to put politics above our relationship. “That’s very noble of him,” says Mongrain, visibly moved by this anecdote. What he’s saying, she says, is: “I treasure our relationship more than I treasure my convictions.”
No One Is Their Beliefs
My brother seems to understand, Mongrain says, that his beliefs, as well as mine, are a part, but not the sum total of who we are. If you feel your beliefs define who you are, Mongrain admonishes, it’s going to be much harder for you to empathize with someone who disagrees with you, because it will feel like an assault on your very being. “A lot is at stake if it’s your entire identity,” she says. Shifting that perspective could mean the difference between reaping the benefits of empathy and not.
Do Something Nice for Someone You Don’t Like
If there’s someone in your orbit you’re not keen on, resist surrendering to your dislike. Surprise him or her with a cup of coffee or treat you know they love. It’ll change the dynamic, and possibly thaw the frost between you.
Don’t Forget the Old Axiom: We’re More Alike Than We Are Different
Mongrain says we’re all striving for the same thing — to avoid suffering and to maximize our happiness. “We’re all in this struggle so we’re more alike fundamentally,” she says, “and when you can grasp that on a deeper level, the resentment toward others vanishes.”
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