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Empathy and December: Why this year ends with a need for more empathy

Friends and family getting on your nerves? Mimi Nicklin, author of a bestselling book on kindness and leadership, writes about extending your empathy just a little further

'Softening the Edge︱Empathy: How Humanity's Oldest Leadership Trait is Changing Our World' by Mimi Nicklin (The Dreamwork Collective; September 2020)

As 2020 comes to an end, we close many months of being locked inside with our friends and family to a level we have never experienced. We have become increasingly aware of the need to live more connected, kind and conscientious lives but it can be hard to have perspective when the pressure rises, and we continue to share home spaces for extended periods. This year our close proximity has meant there has been an elevation of our awareness of others in our attempt to understand each other better, but how can we do this? Is deep empathy for each other the answer?

Often mistaken as a skill we are born with more or less of, empathy is a natural ability we all possess that connects us to those around us, allowing us to see the world from their perspective. As December continues, and we try to share our humility and compassion with others, it is our ability to deeply connect with them that allows us to gain in both strength, unity and peace. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic and that means that there are many who will still need your patience and understanding in ever higher quantities. So how do we end this year with ever more empathy and humanity with those around us?

5 habits for higher levels of empathy at home:

Try to be patient and present with your family and friends. Your in laws, your extended family, your room-mates–whoever you are at home with, make those people you speak to feel like they are the only person in the room. When you are talking to them, ensure you are using active listening to truly connect with their words. Phrases like "what I'm hearing you say is…." make the speaker feel encouraged and understood, as well as ensuring you can really hear what is being communicated to you. Listen up, listen in and try to blur out some of the background stress so you can really connect as people at least once a day.

Be respectful and open about the spaces each of you need: Open communication can ensure that, even in small spaces, there are boundaries to each other’s space for working or relaxing. Try to understand what other people might need to feel comfortable, or to be able to work optimally, before getting frustrated with another’s behaviour. It is equally important you share your own reality too to ensure there is mutual understanding. By being connected to what you all need you can avoid difficult tensions and overcome conflicts more easily.

Smile more, lean in further: It’s easy to smile lots when things are going well but when tension rises, we can forget this. Try to remember that the majority of our communication is nonverbal so being conscious of your body language promotes more calm and connection in your environment. Lean inward towards your family member or friend and ensure your body language is open–with uncrossed arms and an encouraging smile and eye contact. These small changes to your stance will go a great distance to creating cohesion in the home even when conflict occurs.

Be kind: Kindness is the response with which we react to empathy. Once you have understood another, choose kindness above all else. It’s been a long 10 months and a little more kindness, a little more often will take us a long way to showing our shared understanding and connection to those around us.

We can cultivate empathy throughout our lives, and it can have a huge impact on ourselves and others by doing so, especially in our home and family units. The days of believing that we are essentially self-interested creatures (survival of the fittest) with a need to live self-centred and disconnected lives have passed, as we now see both evidence and necessity for us to be wired to care and driven by social cooperation and mutual aid.

As we remain in close proximity with those we love for more months ahead, a focus on practising the skills of empathy is entirely within our grasp and never has there been a better time to start.

Mimi Nicklin is the author of Softening the Edge︱Empathy: How Humanity's Oldest Leadership Trait is Changing Our World

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