This year we have seen a strange phenomenon unfold where some of us have seen more of our families than ever before, as we were locked in together, and others have been harshly separated from them for extended periods of time. In many instances is segregation still far from over.

Everyone has experienced this year differently and it is in our shared understanding of this that we gain our strength and patience to find new relationships and boundaries with those we care most about. The ability to tune into the realities of our families will continue to be the key to harmony as we continue to walk unchartered territories and head into the winter season ahead.

Empathy is a natural ability

Often mistaken as a skill we are born with more or less of, empathy is a natural ability we all possess that connects us to those around us, allowing us to see the world from their perspective. At its most basic, empathy is the ability to recognise and respond to the reality, emotions, or pain of others. It is the ability to put yourself into their place, to understand their context and to see things as they do. Physically feeling grief when you watch a terribly sad story on the news or laughing with others are examples of our most natural, biologically imperative, empathetic response. For some, this comes more naturally or quickly but we are all born with the ability to empathise.

Natural reactions of small children and toddlers

Have you ever cried in front of a small child or toddler? It is entirely natural for them to immediately respond by feeling sad themselves.

Their faces soften, their mouths downturn, and their eyes fill with worry as they immediately ask, “Do you feel sad?” In the case of my daughter, who is three years old, she will then immediately move into action to try and make me laugh and smile and then hurry to ask, “Are you happy again now, Mummy?”

In part, of course, this is due to her care for me as her mum, but beyond that, you can also see her whole body lighten when I say “yes”. The heaviness of her empathy for me when I appeared sad made her sad too. Although she really did want me to feel happy in myself, more-so she wanted her own sadness gone so she could get back to playing with her toys and laughing like a wild thing.

Putting herself into my position is natural to her because empathy is natural to all of us. The reality is however we don’t all choose to activate it all that often and the choice to ignore our empathic engagement is at the root of so many disagreements, conflicts and separations within our family units.

Navigating the months ahead

As we continue to navigate the months ahead, it will be our ability to deeply connect with the people closest to us that allows us to gain in both strength and unity. Empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human and it’s a skill we evolved to use with the units we live within; both for individual success and growth but critically also for our success as a group, as a family. At the core as humans, our greatest need is to be seen and to be heard by those around us. It makes us happy, we perform better, and our immune systems even function more highly.

So, how might we improve our empathy at home with those we love?

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3 habits for cultivating higher levels of empathy at home:

Be present:

Try and make sure people always feel like they are the only person in the room. When you are talking to them, ensure you are using active listening to provoke deeper understanding. Phrases like “what I’m hearing you say is…” make them feel encouraged and engaged, as well as ensuring you really do hear what is being communicated to you.

Tune In:

We are naturally wired to empathise, yet so often we spend our time with our family in a shared physical environment, but barely connect beyond the topic at hand. Especially if we are busy with chores or long lists and family routines.

This week take an active focus on connecting with the feelings and emotions of those around you at home with a more committed approach to imagining how they feel. Focus on asking questions rather than giving advice and you will find a deeper ability to gain insight into their reality – especially with teens and toddlers who are both groups that often miss out on this understanding.

Lean forward:

Remembering that the majority of our communication is nonverbal. Be conscious to use your body language to promote mutual connection. Lean inward and ensuring your body language is open – with uncrossed arms – and that your eye contact remains focused. There is a reason that parenting books worldwide advise parents to kneel down, at eye level, when explaining ‘bad’ behaviour to babies and young children. The need to connect through your eyes, your facial expression, and your body language in a way that makes us feel ‘seen’ and understood and it is infinitely more effective than distancing yourself from a standing height.

Empathy may be one of the greatest gifts you can offer, and receive, at home.

Making empathy part of your daily familial practice and routine could just be the secret to lower stress, better understanding, and far fewer arguments. And let’s be honest, this year more than any, we would all welcome all of these with open arms.

Article by Mimi Nicklin.

Mimi Nicklin is a globally recognised millennial thought-leader. She is host of the Empathy for Breakfast show, Secrets of The Gap podcast and author of new book Softening the Edge out 15 September priced £10.95.

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