I recently listened to a podcast in which the host described most people's social media behavior as the equivalent of shouting at traffic. Just like road rage, we all just want to have our say, and in most cases we don't think about the feelings of others or even try to engage in an actual conversation.
Studies show that we're losing our ability to be empathetic — to imagine and understand the perspective of others. Research published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review found that empathy levels for college students are declining at a rate of about 50 percent over the last 30 years. What's more, a review of seven studies found that the wealthier you are, the less likely you are to be able to empathize with others.
The wage gap has created an empathy gap in which Americans are more and more likely to surround themselves — in person and online — only with people whose perspectives match their own. When we are confronted with an uncomfortable situation in which someone expresses an opposing viewpoint, we "shout at traffic" to make ourselves feel better rather than take the initiative to understand it.
There's no doubt we're becoming less empathetic as a society, but does it matter?
Yes it most certainly does. And research shows that the two places it might matter most are the workplace and the dating scene.
Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, founder of The Center for Nonviolent Communication, conducted research that found in employee-employer disputes, arguments were resolved 50 percent faster when both sides agreed to restate what the other person just said before they started speaking themselves. Along those same lines, Roman Krznaric, author of "Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It," says more empathy in the workplace leads to better teamwork, leadership and creativity.
Studies also show empathy is the key to scoring more dates — especially for teenage boys. Researchers at American Catholic University found that teen boys who were highly empathetic attracted almost twice as many girls as the boys who didn't have the ability to empathize. They also found that both girls and boys who had high levels of empathy were most likely to have a supportive circle of friends.
More dates and better jobs? Sounds like two good reasons to try your hand at empathy. Here's how it's done:
- Listen. Whether you're arguing with someone or simply having a casual conversation, it's important to remember to listen to what the other person is saying rather than focusing on framing your response. Krznaric suggests listening for two things: "What the other person is feeling and what they need."
- Acknowledge. Once you've heard what the other person has to say, validate it with a statement such as, "I hear you saying that you don't feel appreciated." Remember, acknowledgement does not equal agreement. But it does mean that you're beginning to understand the other person's viewpoint.
- Imagine. Now it's time for you to really do the work of empathy. Step into the other person's shoes and try to understand why they feel the way they do. Are they just being stubborn or is there a reason they hold their beliefs? If you can imagine their viewpoint — and again, this does not necessarily mean that you agree with it — it will go a long way toward helping you reach a compromise you both feel good about.
It's as simple as that. Having empathy for another person doesn't mean you will magically agree with what they're saying, but it does mean that you're willing to make an effort to understand the discussion from their perspective. When you do that, you're much less likely to want to "shout at traffic," and more likely to have a meaningful conversation.