Eyes of the Beholder

Look into my eyes! Image: NaturPhilosophieReading Someone’s Mind through their Eyes?

Look into my eyes.  The eyes, the eyes.  Not around the eyes.  Don’t look AROUND the eyes.  Look INTO my eyes.  The eyes…  [click]  You’re not under!  But…  Can you read my mind?

According to the latest neuroscience research, 98% of people (excluding those with psychopathic tendencies) have the ability to empathise wired into their brains – an in-built capacity for stepping into the shoes of others and understanding their feelings and perspectives, if you will.  Human beings are naturally primed to embrace this message.  Look into the eyes...

Empathy is a quality integral to most people’s lives – yet the modern world makes it easy to lose sight of the feelings of others.  The problem is that most of us do not tap into their full empathetic potential in everyday life.  The empathy gap can appear in personal relationships too…

But the good news is that almost everyone can learn to develop this crucial personality trait, and be more empathetic – just like we can learn to ride a bike or drive a car!

A black and white collage of images, featuring men and women's eyes. Image: NaturPhilosophieYou can start by doing a quick assessment of your empathetic abilities – a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes in which you are shown 36 pairs of eyes and have to choose one of four words that best describes what each person is feeling or thinking – for instance, jealous, arrogant, panicked or hateful.  This test first appeared in the book ‘The Essential Difference’ by Simon Baron-Cohen, a neuropsychologist and psychopathologist at the University of Cambridge.

The average score of around 26 suggests that the majority of people are surprisingly good, although far from perfect, at visually reading others’ emotions.


Just Listen!

In fact, there are three simple but powerful strategies for unleashing the empathic potential that is latent in your neural circuitry:

  • Make a habit of listening.

Listening out for people’s feelings and needs gives them a sense of being understood.  Let people have their say, hold back from interrupting and even reflect back on what they told you so they knew you were really listening.

“Radical listening” can have an extraordinary impact on resolving conflict situations.  In ‘Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships‘ (2003), Marshall Rosenberg points out that in employer-employee disputes, if both sides literally repeat what the other side just said before speaking themselves, conflict resolution is reached 50% faster.

  • Deepen your empathy for others by developing an awareness of all those individuals hidden behind the surface of our daily lives, on whom we may depend in some way.

A Buddhist-inspired approach to this is to spend a whole day becoming mindful of every person connected to your routine actions.  When you have your morning coffee, think about the people who picked the coffee beans. As you button your shirt, consider the labour behind the label by asking yourself who sewed on these buttons, where in the World do they live, and what are their daily lives like…  Continue through the day by asking yourself who is driving the train in which you commute, or who is stacking the supermarket shelves at night?

Such mindful awareness can spark empathetic action on behalf of others, whether it’s buying Fairtrade coffee or becoming friends with the office cleaner.

  • A humoristic cartoon featuring the three wise monkeys of the Internet Age. The captions are reading: "Hear All Evil, See All Evil, Post All Evil".
    Just don’t overdo it!

    Be curious about strangers

Having conversations with strangers can open up our empathetic minds.  Not only can we meet fascinating people, but also challenge the preconceptions, assumptions and prejudices that we may have about others based on their appearance, accents or backgrounds.

Meet your neighbours…  Even a homeless man can have interesting credentials, and you never know who you are going to strike a friendship with.

It is all about recovering the curiosity each one of us had as a child, which society is so good at beating out of us.  Get beyond the superficial talk, but beware of interrogating people.  Respect the advice of oral historian Studs Terkel – who always spoke to people on the bus on his daily commute:

“Don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer.”


The Power of Outrospection

A drawing featuring four different pairs of shoes, varying in sizes, colours and styles.
Step into somebody else’s shoes at the Empathy Museum

Later this year, the World’s first Empathy Museum is launching in the UK, before travelling to Australia, and other countries.  Amongst the exhibitions will be a human library – where instead of borrowing a book, you borrow a person for conversation!  The kind of people you may not get to meet in everyday life…

As psychologist Daniel Goleman put it:

Without empathy, a person is “emotionally tone deaf”.

Empathy is the cornerstone of healthy human relationships.  Clearly, with a little bit of effort, almost everyone can put more of their empathetic potential to use.  Try slipping on your empathy shoes and make an adventure of looking at the World through the eyes of others.

So, can you read my mind?

Look into the eyes…