Neuroplasticity: How to re-wire your brain to be more empathic

In our last article, we looked at why empathy is the most important skill for the 21st century leader. The next question is whether skills like empathy can be trained and improved, or is this just another magical trait that a few lucky people are born with?

For decades, psychologists believed that the human brain was unchangeable once a person hit adulthood. William James, the father of modern psychology, famously said: “It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of 30, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again”. Happily, the notion that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks has recently been discredited. Exciting new research from the field of neuroscience shows that the adult brain has a remarkable ability to change, in both structure and functionality, when exposed to new stimuli. This process is called neuroplasticity and it is revolutionizing the way we think about learning new skills and adult development. Simply put, every time you approach a problem with a new perspective (e.g., empathically), the neurons in your brain that are linked with that behaviour fire. If you do this enough, these neurons become stronger, more readily available, and ultimately more impactful in future behavior.

What this research means is that you can train your brain just like any other muscle in your body. And most importantly, these findings extend to social skills such as empathy. Here are three mental exercises that have been shown to be effective in building empathy. When you try these exercises, keep in mind that they may, and in certain cases should, feel a little uncomfortable. Just like doing physical exercise can lead to some initial discomfort, mental conditioning can also take a little getting used to. Remember, like the old adage says ‘no pain, no gain’ – this small discomfort is actually the result of growth and improvement.

Exercise 1: Understand yourself. When you know more about your own strengths and weaknesses, it naturally becomes easier to empathically connect with others. One way to learn about yourself is through psychometric testing. Doing an assessment like Myers-Briggs or Hermann Brain Dominance can help raise your own awareness about you might prefer to approach problems Though far from perfect, these tests can provide with a framework for thinking about your own preferred thinking style and can help you realize that others may think and act differently (for different reasons) than you do. Besides these formal assessments, a simple but powerful exercise you can do right now is to write down two paragraphs on what really makes you tick. Why do you get up in the morning? What motivates you to put in the extra effort at work? Who, or what, do you do it for? Research shows that a simple exercise like this can have transformational effects on your self-understanding. Linking this back to neuroplasticity, physically taking the time to do this (yes, you should actually write it down) instead of just thinking about it will help activate and strengthen those self-awareness neurons, raising your capacity for empathy.

Exercise 2: Understand others. Having a structured understanding of the various motives that can drive behaviour will also lead to greater empathy. For example, McClelland’s Needs Theory argues that all human beings are driven by a combination of three basic motives (Power, Achievement, and Affiliation), and people vary greatly in terms of which of these is their dominant motivator. Once you know how these motives impact individuals, you can better plan your interactions with others and respond more empathically to their needs. Building on this, another exercise you can do right now is to write two paragraphs about what you think drives someone close to you. It can be a peer, co-worker, or friend. If you dare, share your answer with the person afterwards to gauge how accurate you were – you might be surprised at what you hear. Again, what is most important is physically doing the exercise, because this forces you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and think empathically. As you do this, your neural pathways linked to perspective taking and empathy are getting valuable repetitions that will help automate this skill. Once you’ve done this for one person, do it for another. And then another. The more reps you do, the stronger that muscle will get.

Exercise 3: Communicate better. Another way to improve empathy is through communication practice. Great leaders connect with their followers more authentically and respond to them with more empathy through their communication styles. The work of Martin Seligman highlights how the key to effective communication lies in asking authentic questions that help build rapport – a process called active-constructive responding. This was what distinguished Bill Clinton – whose one-on-one charisma is often attributed to his simple life philosophy that “Everybody has a story, and I am interested to learn their story”. Clinton’s gift for asking people questions put them at ease and made them feel listened to and special. To put this into practice, try having conversations where you are only allowed to ask questions. Push yourself to go beyond just listening to the other person and make a concerted effort to peel back the layers and get at their underlying why by asking them good, meaningful questions. This will force you to express interest in the other person at a deeper level. More importantly, it will also activate those empathy neurons and help you to do this more naturally and regularly.

Whether you are 20 or 80 years old, science shows that through neuroplasticity, you can literally re-wire your brain to perform better. By deliberately engaging in exercises that help increase our understanding of ourselves and others, and that build our effective communication skills, we can learn to connect more empathically and lead more effectively.

Mike is the founder of Juniper – a boutique consulting firm. Faizan Imtiaz, an organizational psychologist, is spending his summer at Juniper as part of his PhD program at Queen’s University. This is the second in a series of articles on what recent scientific research means to leadership and culture.