How to Cultivate Empathy

Empathy for others requires a minimum level of calm in yourself. To take an extreme example, if you are hanging off the top ledge of a fifty-story building and someone starts telling you their problems, you don't have much empathy, do you? And in a more mundane example, when you're scared or upset, your empathy for others isn't as high as it usually is.

And it is true in the other direction too: When you are calmer than you usually are, your empathy for others is higher than normal.

Empathy is what allows you to really connect with people. Empathy is being able to feel how another person feels, to share the experience with them, to see the world through their eyes. It is the most important state of mind you can cultivate in yourself for the pursuit of closeness.

And having a calm body and mind really helps. Experiments have shown this to be the case, and your everyday experience confirms it.

The surest way to calm your body is with what Herbert Benson called the relaxation response. When you hold one word or phrase in your mind for a period of time, you become calmer — and that greater calm lasts for several hours afterward. Here how to produce the relaxation response:

1. Choose one word or phrase to hold in mind.

2. Decide ahead of time how long you will go. Ten minutes is a good length of time. Twenty minutes is best.

3. Get in a quiet place and sit down. Don't lie down. Close your eyes and think the word or phrase. Just hold it gently in your mind. It doesn't matter if you have other thoughts.

4. Your mind will wander away. After awhile, you'll realize you aren't holding your word or phrase in your mind at all any more. When you notice this, simply return to thinking your word or phrase.

5. When your time is up, open your eyes.

Don't do this with a forcing effort. For a few minutes you can let go of your planning, your worries, your ideas, or the conversations you might have had or will be having. The relaxation response is a refuge — an island of peace in an ocean of unpeaceful thoughts.

Doing this, your cortisol level (stress hormone) drops dramatically and stays low for hours. Your increased calm gives you more empathy for people, which changes the way you interact, which improves your connections with people, which improves your health.

All you do is sit quietly and hold some simple word or phrase in your mind with your eyes closed for twenty minutes. (Read more about this.)

Something really surprising happens when you do that. The simplicity of your thoughts somehow calms your mind and body. The physical changes are dramatic. Blood pressure drops. Stress hormone levels drop. Your heart slows down. Muscle tension fades away. And some of these effects last for many hours afterwards.

Try it. It is incredibly boring sometimes, but ironically, that might be what is so wonderful about it. Just like excitement and fear are almost the same thing, depending on your acceptance or rejection of what's happening, boredom and peace are almost the same thing, depending on your acceptance or rejection of what's happening.


A feeling of calmness is not one of many positive attitudes that can help your relationships, it is the key state. It is fundamentally valuable. I spent many years chasing down the wrong animal. I thought cheerfulness and positivity were king, but they are not. Calmness is king. And the cheerfulness arising out of tranquility is way better than the cheerfulness arising out of agitation.

Those are the two basic poles — the first division of attitude: Calm is on one end; agitation is on the other. Really it's a sliding scale with deep serenity on one end and hysterical freakout at the other. Agitation is the malady. Calm is the remedy.

All the attitudes we normally think of when we say someone has a "bad attitude" are different forms of agitation. Stress is agitation. Upset is agitation. Worry is agitation. Anger is agitation. Trying to appear cheerful when you feel sad is agitation. Forcing yourself to make small talk is agitation. Impatience and intolerance are agitation. When you see it this way, you can easily see why calmness is so vitally important.

When you want to create better relationships, calmness is the most important attribute you can cultivate in yourself. Calmness is the gateway to love, kindness, and affection. Calmness enhances relationships.

You're a better listener when you're calm. When you can listen calmly, thoughtfully, intently, the person really gets heard.

And you're a better speaker when you're calm. When you feel relaxed and secure, it's easier to let your guard down. It's easier to know what you're feeling and easier to say what you're feeling.

Calmness supports sanity (good listening, thoughtful responses to events, sound decisions, etc.).

Agitation does not support sanity.

One thing is sure: The calmness you can cultivate will enhance your relationships.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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