The Shortcut to Empathy

Fake it until you feel it. It really is that simple.

Photo by Harrison Moore on Unsplash

I used to dread teaching emotional intelligence. It wasn’t the topic; I was always very passionate about helping people develop those skills. It was the format: I had three hours to teach people what emotional intelligence was, why it was important, and how to improve it.

It was an impossible task. There was too much information crammed into too little time.

At least, it felt impossible to me because I’ve always believed that to master a new skill, I first needed to learn the history of everything involved in accomplishing that skill. (The perfect foundation for imposter syndrome, right?)

Of course, this is not true. I have followed recipes without knowing the source of every ingredient. I have followed the instructions to build an Ikea bookcase without knowing anything about the manufacturing process that produced the boards or the history of the Allen wrench.

I had a college math teacher who taught this way. “Don’t try to understand it,” he’d yell at the class when someone would ask about a complicated equation. “Just do exactly what I tell you to do.”

Those of us who gave up trying to understand, and instead just followed his exact instructions, were able to ace his exams. And by the end of the semester, a few of the concepts started to sink in.

Is this okay? Well, I guess it depends. If I was planning a career as an engineer, probably not. But since I studying communication and had no real need for algebra, simply following the teacher’s instructions worked for me. I didn’t need to understand it. I just needed to get pass the class.

Just run faster

Sometimes the instructions are so simple, you cannot believe it will work. Your mind fights it.

A few years ago, I decided to try to run a “fast” marathon (that is, fast for me). Up until then, I figured if possessed any natural talent for speed, it would have been apparent at some point during my 30+ years of running. But since I have never been remotely fast, I only ever ran for fun.

Then one day I finished a marathon in 4:20, 30 minutes faster than my previous marathon, and an hour faster than the one before that. When I crossed the finish in 4:20, I started to wonder: what would happen if I intentionally trained to run a faster marathon?

I started researching: how do I run faster? I read every book on running I could find. I found a training plan designed to help me run faster. I started doing speed work once a week. I was strict with my diet and took ice baths after hard workouts. I invested in massage treatments and chiropractic adjustments, to help mitigate the damage of the ramped-up training. I added weight training. I started cross-training.

I understood how all of these things would help me run faster, and I stuck to them. But aside from the dreaded weekly speed workouts, my paces stayed the same. So, I tried something else.

I started running faster.

You see, I assumed that with all I had learned and implemented, my pace would naturally improve. But it didn’t. Because I’d spent over thirty years training my legs to run at an easy pace, around a 10:30/mile. It was (and still is) my default pace.

So I started intentionally running at an uncomfortably faster pace. With each step I took, I thought about kicking a little harder, bounding a little further, and stepping a little quicker. And I worked to hold on to that faster pace as for long as I could. I held on until either my legs started puttering out or my lungs started to explode. At first those bursts of speed only lasted a quarter of a mile at a time. But with each session, those bursts lasted longer and longer.

One year later I crossed the finish line in 3:54, just under the Boston qualifying time for my age group (unfortunately I didn’t make the cut — that’s a story for another time).

My 3:54 marathon gave me an average pace of 8:56 per mile. That is a seriously fast pace for me to maintain for one mile, much less 26. Yet somehow, I did it. How?

Yes, I practiced running faster. But going from a 10:30/mile pace to an 8:50–9:00/mile pace was more than just a physical challenge. The voice in my head was my worst enemy: it constantly reminded me how uncomfortable that pace was, and how bad my legs and lungs were hurting. It told me that I was going to fail. That there was no way I could sustain that pace for 26 entire miles.

So, part of the process of running faster was fighting back against my negative thoughts. I changed the dialogue inside my head, telling myself things like “you are strong,” and “you are fast” (and occasionally masochistic things like “when it hurts, it’s time to push,” and “you kill hills.”) I don’t know that I ever believed those things, but it worked to drown out the negative messages in my head.

At the end of the day, the way I learned to run faster was to just run faster. I would argue that a similar approach works with empathy.

Just be nicer

If you want to increase your empathy, just be nicer. Seriously. You don’t need to understand the psychology of empathy or the importance of self-awareness. You don’t need to meditate for 20 minutes a day. You don’t need to feel nicer — please, don’t wait until you feel nicer — just be nicer.

Sure, working on your self-awareness, self-control, and social skills are all vital components of the emotional intelligence package. And ideally these things work to strengthen your empathic responses. But that process takes time. And even if you learn all of these concepts, your empathy will not naturally improve. You need to make the effort.

Kick a little harder, bound a little further, and step a little quicker. Drown out the negative messages with positive ones.

Lead with the desired behavior: just be nicer. I am not saying it will be easy; in fact, it will be downright unpleasant at first. Your brain will argue with you. Be nice anyways. Let your empathy and self-awareness develop from your experiences of just being nicer.

In other words, fake it.

Why should you fake it?

Of the five components of emotional intelligence introduced by Daniel Goleman, I would argue that the key component is motivation. Nothing happens without it.

I was motivated to run fast. So I ran fast even when it didn’t feel natural or pleasant.

I am motivated to be an empathic person. So I am nice to others, even when it doesn’t feel natural or pleasant.

Certainly, there are many EI coaches who would have you spend hundreds or thousands of dollars taking their courses, attending their seminars, and reading their books to increase your empathy and emotional intelligence.

Just as many running coaches would urge you to you hire them to coach you, purchase their training plans, follow their diet plans, and read their books, in order to run faster.

If you have the means, and the time, by all means you should. But even with a coach (emotional intelligence or running), at some point you will just need to do the thing.

Run faster. Even if you don’t feel faster.

Be nicer. Even if you don’t feel empathic.

The first time you try, you will feel uncomfortable. It will not feel natural. You will feel like you are faking it. Because maybe you are. Just do it anyways. What’s the worst that could happen — that you are nice to a fellow human being? Is that a bad thing?

Want to practice? Start with any comments section on the internet

I long to live in a society where everyone is kind, good, caring, and accepting. I believe most of us are all of those things. But I do not believe that any of us are all of those things, all the time. And in our angry, frustrated, or fearful moments, we often choose to go on the attack when confronted with something that offends us, instead of trying to understand (or ignore) it. And this choice is intensifying the divide in this country.

I know that we, as a society, have neither the time nor the resources to pull everyone aside and teach the concepts of emotional intelligence, and hope (hope!) that that knowledge translates to kinder, more empathic behavior.

Then again, if I’m honest, I don’t care if everyone is or is not emotionally intelligent. What I do care about is manifesting the kind of behavior that people display as a result of increased emotional intelligence: simply being nice to one other.

Seriously. That’s it.

So lets all practice. The next time you find yourself at the comments section of any social media platform, scroll through a few dozen responses. It will not take long to find a string of comments that quickly devolve into harsh attacks, no matter what the topic of discussion.

Read the ones you do not agree with. Allow yourself to react emotionally and take note of that feeling. Is your inner voice screaming? Do you feel the temperature rising? Are you gritting your teeth or shaking your head? Let yourself be in that space for a moment. Your feelings are valid.

Then ask yourself this: regarding the person who posted the offensive comment, what do you have in common with this person?

Don’t say “nothing.”

You are both humans. Even if that is all you can come up with, start with that. You both have a biological mother and father. So now we are up to three things in common. What impression does this person make on you, just from this comment (and perhaps their avatar)? Do they seem angry? Or perhaps uneducated? Stupid? Evil?

Let’s say that your immediate opinion is that they are ignorant. (We’ve all thought that about someone we don’t know on the internet — maybe you are thinking that about me right now.) Now ask yourself this: have you ever been ignorant about anything?

Don’t say “no.”

We have all come across new information that changes what we previously thought or believed about something. That state we were in, before the new information arrived — that’s ignorance. And that is okay.

So now we have something else in common; we have all had our ignorant moments.

Are you frightened by their comment? I have never read a frightening comment that wasn’t written by a fearful person. You feel afraid — and they feel afraid. Something else we all share. It is possible to come up with a slew common human experiences.

And that is what I am asking you to do; humanize that total stranger. Yes, it is difficult. Just do it.

Kick a little harder, bound a little further, and step a little quicker. Drown out the negative messages with positive ones.

If you made it this far in this essay, then you definitely possess the motivation required to humanize the person who has written that truly offensive message. Let me be clear: this is not about taking a high road; it is not about telling yourself you are better than them. This is about understanding that you are both human — and that is all.

Remind yourself that you do not live that person’s life. No, I am not telling you to try to “walk a mile in their shoes,” the quintessential definition of empathy. You do not need to do that to understand the fact that your background is inherently different than theirs. That everyone’s brains are wired differently. That every word, every sentence, every message, takes on a different meaning for every person who hears it.

Lastly, do this: Nothing.

Just leave it at that. Do not reply. Leave the comment section. Being nice doesn’t mean dismissing your own opinions and beliefs. Being nice doesn’t mean agreeing with something you find offensive. Sometimes being nice is as simple as not adding your voice to the chorus of anger, no matter how reasonable or empathic your response might be. Now if we were talking about a face-to-face conversation, I might suggest some active listening techniques to demonstrate understanding (not agreement). But for a comment section? Walk away.

Do you see? No, it might not be pleasant. And no, it might not be comfortable. But you did it.

Keep doing it.

I hate this part. OK, I’m a storyteller. A runner. Artist. Developer. Writing words and code and words and code and….

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