Make Empathy a Reflex

Photo: Pixabay

You know empathy is important for you and your child, but is it really something you can get better at? Yes, it is! Here’s one tried-and-true method.

Empathy has sometimes been a struggle for me.

Empathy isn’t about “being right”

By the time I reached my twenties, I had internalized a fairly robust set of rules about how people should behave in various situations. I chalk it up to my Boy Scout upbringing: “A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind … ”

When I found myself in an emotionally charged situation, my first instinct was to think about others’ behavior in light of my code of conduct. “That wasn’t kind,” I might think to myself, or say out loud.

Maybe I was right about the kindness factor, but empathy is about something different than “being right.” Empathy is about perceiving and reacting to other people’s feelings.

“Try on” another person’s emotions

First, you have to be able to notice an emotional change in another person. Your own emotional antenna must be up. Miss clues in the other person’s tone of voice or the softening lines around their eyes, and you’re out of the game.

Second, you have to feel a little bit of that emotion yourself. As John Medina describes in Brain Rules for Baby, you have to “try on” the perceived feelings as if they were clothes, then reflect on how you would react if you yourself were experiencing those feelings.1

This isn’t easy for me. Sometimes I can’t seem to feel the other person’s emotion myself. I’ve already jumped into problem-solving mode, or I’m too focused on my own feelings.

Two steps to jumpstart empathy

Thankfully, John Medina is here to rescue people like me with a helpful crutch. He calls it the “empathy reflex.”2  It’s a super simple two-part process:

  1. Describe the emotion you think you see in the other person.
  2. Make a guess as to where their emotion is coming from.

That’s all.

Pull out the empathy reflex when you’re feeling triggered. You’re just about to open your mouth to defend yourself or protest someone else’s behavior.

I’ve been trying it with my wife and my kids. Step 1 is helping me observe more closely, to notice the emotion the other person is communicating, not just their words. And I love that Step 2 just asks me to guess where the other person’s emotion is coming from. I don’t have to know. I can handle that!

As Medina notes, when you make an effort to guess where another person’s emotions are coming from, it forces you to “try on” their feelings, at least for a brief moment. In my experience, it’s magic!

Empathy is like miracle-gro!

This strategy reminds me of James Clear’s approach to building better habits. Start with an action so small, he advises, that it’s pretty much impossible to say no. Want to start a journal? Start by writing one sentence each night. Want to exercise more? Start by doing jumping jacks, or another exercise you choose, for just one minute each day.

The empathy reflex is like that. Want to become more empathetic? Start by describing the emotion you’re seeing in another person and then wondering where it came from. Easy peasy.

If you’re like me and you’re not already getting an A in empathy, this habit could cascade into major changes in your marriage and in your parenting. Your child is watching your every move, especially when the emotion meter cranks up. Their emotional and intellectual development depends greatly on how much empathy you show them.

Empathy is like Miracle-Gro for children’s brains.

Do This One Thing to Make Empathy a Reflex

When you’re about to open your mouth to defend yourself or protest someone’s behavior, hold off a moment and try the empathy reflex instead:

  1. Describe the emotion you think you see in the other person.
  2. Make a guess as to where that emotion comes from.
Like what you just read?

Sign up for my newsletter to receive one new article each week, customized to the age of your child. Just enter your email address below and click “Subscribe.”

Make Empathy a Reflex
  1. John Medina, Brain Rules for Baby, p. 82.
  2. Medina, pp. 82–84.