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  • Writer's pictureGreg Graber

Building Empathy Muscles

As I write this, our nation is in crisis. Civil unrest ensues, as protests in major cities are happening as a reaction to a police officer in Minneapolis killing a man named George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while he was handcuffed. Our collective consciousness has been repulsed by the graphic images of the video of this incident, which has been played on media outlets on a seemingly continuous loop since it happened. This senseless murder is horrific. Sadly, a similar incident was brought to the nation's attention several months ago when a jogger, Ahmaud Abery, was shot to death by a father and son while running through their neighborhood. This incident also received national attention as it was videoed as well. In both cases, the victims were African- American, and the murders were caucasian.

Sadly, it seems like these kinds of horrific transgressions are becoming more common, or perhaps as Will Smith said, "Racism is not getting worse. It's just getting filmed." As protesters take to the streets, their frustrations are being vented in different ways. Many people are taking to social media to express their views, both in support and condemnation of the protests.

While the discourse continues to go back and forth, one of the most astounding things to me is the apparent lack of empathy that some individuals display with their words. To my dismay, I heave heard some say that George Floyd would still be alive if he would not have been breaking the law. This epitomizes a lack of empathy. How could any functioning adult with a semblance of intelligence say that it OK for a helpless handcuffed man who allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit twenty dollar bill be choked to death by a knee to his throat?

Another notable display of lack of empathy I have seen quite a bit lately is when someone says "Black lives matter," and instead of trying to validate or understand their pain, someone marginalizes their feelings and their plight by replying, "All lives matter." I heard this put into proper perspective recently by a minister when he said the lack of empathy by someone retorting "All lives matter" when someone says "black Lives matter," would be like if Jesus proclaimed "Blessed are the Poor," and then someone were to reply to him, "Blessed are all lives, Jesus." Of course all lives matter. Anyone with any sense knows this. However, "all lives" are not being victimized by systemic racism. Black lives are.

Daniel Goleman, the author of the ground breaking book, Emotional Intelligence, says that empathy is "basically the ability to understand others' emotions." In addition, empathy is one of the defining characteristics and foundations of emotional intelligence. Empathy comes naturally to most people, but some struggle with it. Some characteristics of individuals who lack empathy may include:

Having trouble feeling happy for others

Trouble making and/or keeping friends

Lacking compassion for people who are less fortunate or suffering

Always believing they are 100% correct. No regard for others' beliefs, feelings, or values that oppose theirs

Judging others who disagree with their views as "stupid" or "worthless"

Difficulty getting along with family members

Talking about themselves excessively in group settings without seeming to care about what others share

While empathy is both a learned and innate skill, it is shaped by how we are wired from birth and from our life experiences. Individuals who are empathetic are able to get into touch with their emotions better than those who lack empathy. People who struggle with empathy were often raised in families who avoided discussing or revealing their feelings or emotions. It is also likely they were conditioned to repress their feelings, and they were possibly even condemned for showing any emotion. When a child is raised in this type of environment, he or she learns to shut-down their feelings and close their heart at a young age. As a result, they are stunted in terms of their abilities to cultivate and display empathy for others.

The good news is that empathy, like most interpersonal skills, can be developed over time.

Here are some tips on how to build your child's "empathy muscles" (good for adults too!):

1. Teach empathy to your child by enacting empathy towards them.

2. Let them see you displaying empathy for other people.

3. Teach your child that he or she is not the center of the universe.

4. Encourage them to be friends with people who are different from them.

5. Let them know that having a robust life means often having friends who hold different beliefs than their own.

6. Every now and then, when asking them about their school day, leave off the question about what they learned for the day, and instead ask them if they made anyone smile or feel good about themselves.

7. Help them appreciate various perspectives by discussing ethical dilemmas/scenarios with them. Have fun asking them "What would you do to help this person in this kind of situation" questions at the dinner table.

8. Expose them to quality literature and movies that reinforce the importance of empathy.

9. The "Face Game": show your kids how to "make a face" when they try to imagine how someone else is feeling in different situations.

10. Research suggests that mindfulness enhances empathy, because self compassion leads to empathy for others. To cultivate these skills, practice

mindfulness activities with your child such as mediation and gratitude journaling.

In the past few years, there has been a burgeoning amount of research on the subject of empathy and how it makes people better leaders, workers, friends, and family members. More important, having empathy for one another makes the world a better place. This is a muscle worth flexing.

Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL & Mindfulness at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website:

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