How to practice more empathy right now

While empathy may come more natural to some, it's a skill that must be learned, practiced and used over time, says Yappa CEO Jennifer Dyer.
Jennifer Dyer is the co-founder and CEO of Yappa.
Jennifer Dyer is the co-founder and CEO of Yappa.Courtesy of Jennifer Dyer.

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By Jennifer Dyer

Just about everyone in the world is having a hard time in this moment. Between a global pandemic and a U.S. reckoning on race that has spread abroad, we’re all hurting, even though our personal details may differ. Some are fighting for their lives as they battle COVID-19; others are afraid for their lives as they walk down the street. Some are struggling to work and parent multiple children, while others are struggling alone in their homes during lockdown.

We could all use more caring right now. It sounds simple, and yet it can be hard to practice empathy when we are all facing unprecedented struggles. But once you re-invite empathy into your life, it builds connections, supports others and brings you a degree of peace.

Like everyone else, I'm struggling too: I'm a Black woman, mother and the co-founder and CEO of a company, Yappa, whose employees I have a responsibility to. All of these roles bring their own worries right now. But I've also seen firsthand the power of empathy: It's both the backbone and the inspiration of Yappa, an audio and video commenting tool we designed as an antidote to internet anonymity. When people communicate with their real voices and faces, they come together in a true human-to-human connection — which is exactly what we all need in this moment.

Here are some small ways to develop more empathy:

Think of empathy as the skill that it is, not a personality trait.

We tend to think of empathy as a trait that someone either “has” or doesn’t. But empathy shouldn’t be considered innate, or concrete. While it may come more naturally to some, the fact is that empathy is a skill that must be learned, practiced and used over time.

Just as negotiating for a raise may feel uncomfortable at first, or being “woke” is a lifelong iterative process of learning, empathy can and should be built up over time as you pay attention to it. So, don’t beat yourself up if it isn’t second nature to you, or if it’s a skill you feel you usually have but you’re having a difficult time practicing right now. It takes intention, and there is a lot demanding our attention right now.

Start with “face-to-face” meetings with friends—and share how you’re really feeling.

Beginning with our friends is perhaps the easiest way to reconnect with our capacity for empathy. At the core of it, empathy is about a heart-to-heart connection, and texts really don’t cut it. Hearing each other’s voices, seeing each other’s faces and recognizing each other’s humanity is what breeds empathy.

Right now, our closest approximation of an in-person meetup is video calls. Yes, a few months into the pandemic, we all may feel a bit burned out on the video meetings all week long at work. But try to reserve even 10 minutes a week for a video call with one close friend or several. While texts are fine for a quick “thinking of you” check-in, what really fosters empathy is making that live, voice-to-voice connection.

Make these calls and friendships a safe place to share. Ask your friend how they’re doing and really listen to their voice when they answer. Don’t feel the need to fix problems—many of the struggles we’re all facing don’t have easy or immediate solutions anyway—but recognize that just by listening and validating feelings, you’re helping. And when it’s your turn to share, don’t say you’re fine if you’re not fine. Tell them it’s been a really hard week because of XYZ and you’re feeling low. You sharing your hurt can make someone else feel comfortable sharing theirs. That’s empathy, too.

Make a connection in the grocery store or across the courtyard.

Many of us are barely getting out right now, instead simply shopping for essentials or taking a walk in our neighborhoods in often subdued and quiet outings. But we can still use our voices to make that heart-to-heart exchange, even from 6-plus feet apart and with masks on. “How are you all hanging in?” you can ask the young mother parading her kids around your street. “How has it been working through all of this? Thank you for what you do,” you can say to the cashier at the supermarket.

We always ask people “how are you,” but now we can really mean that. It doesn’t have to be a scheduled call or a person you know. Right now, literally everywhere we turn, there is someone going through the same thing. Using our voices and exchanging words for just two minutes might really lift someone’s spirit at a time it’s needed. We all need it, and it starts with us.

Don’t forget to show empathy for yourself, too.

I’ve heard a lot of people say things like, “Oh, I feel silly complaining about how stressed out and sad I am. It’s not as if I’m a doctor treating COVID-19 patients! I’m not on a ventilator!” Someone will always have it objectively “worse” or “better” than you do. But the fact that they’re hurting doesn’t mean you’re not hurting. Their pain does not negate yours.

Empathy isn’t finite. We don’t have to speak cruelly to ourselves because we don’t have it “bad enough” compared to someone else. That helps no one. What helps is giving that kindness to ourselves so we have the ability to show it to others. The more empathy we give out, the more it breeds and gets passed on. That’s how we change our little corner of the world at the grocery store, or in our friend circle, or with our neighbors. And that is no small thing.

Jennifer Dyer is the co-founder and CEO of Yappa, an audio and video commenting tool that hosts real face-to-face conversations on hundreds of websites including The Hill, iHeartMedia and IGN. With a robust backend to flag hate speech and profanity, Yappa is designed as an antidote to the anonymous environment that text-based comments have created on the internet.