We often have reactions or judgments about the ways others choose to behave. This exercise cultivates your capacity to empathize with the emotional experience of other people by attuning to and empathizing with the felt sense of your own experiences in similar situations.

  • Take a moment to identify a behavior you’ve observed in someone that you don’t like very much, at least in the moment. Maybe the driver in the lane next to you on the freeway is yelling at another driver who just cut her off. Your daughter puts off paying the credit card bill until she’s racking up late fees and jeopardizing her credit rating. Your best friend arrives fifteen minutes late to pick up his son from soccer practice and picks a fight with the coach to cover his chagrin.
  • Notice your own internal reaction to this behavior, including any opinions or spontaneous judgments you may have about this behavior. Set those reactions aside for the moment.
  • Begin to be curious – you’re activating your prefrontal cortex here – about what might be going on in that other person to cause them to act this way. Could they be already stressed, swamped with too many things to attend to, or acting out of inexperience, lack of skill, or low self-esteem?
  • Remember a time when you have acted similarly. I might yell at a driver who cuts me off on the freeway, too. Then I remember times when I’ve inadvertently done the same thing. I can understand and forgive the other driver if I put myself in their place and can understand and forgive myself.
  • Remember that any behavior you’re witnessing now – in yourself or others – is rooted in learned conditioned responses that originally served some survival purpose. Knowing this, you can bring some understanding, compassion, and forgiveness to the other person now.
  • If possible, communicate your empathic understanding of the other person’s experience to them – maybe not the driver on the freeway, but to your daughter or your friend – to make sure that your understanding is accurate and that the care offered in the empathy "lands" or registers with the other person. The other person’s perception of this empathy can help them rewire their encoded patterns of themselves and become receptive to changing their behavior. Your own practice of empathy can help strengthen your prefrontal cortex so that you can accomplish further rewiring, too.

Empathy is one of the key skills in emotional intelligence, and emotional intelligence is more predictive of your success in life than IQ. As you become more competent in connecting to other people through understanding their struggles, you build the relational resources you can call on to deal more resiliently with your own.

Linda Graham in Resilience