What is empathy

'You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.' Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Empathy is the imaginative act of stepping into the shoes of another person and viewing the world from their perspective. That means really trying to understand where someone is coming from – the feelings, beliefs, hopes and experiences that make up their view of the world.

It is important to understand what empathy is and is not. If you see a homeless person living under a bridge you may feel sorry for him and give him some money as you pass by. That is pity or sympathy, not empathy. If, on the other hand, you make an effort to look at the world through his eyes, to consider what life is really like for him, and perhaps have a conversation that transforms him from a faceless stranger into a unique individual, then you are empathising.

Empathy is a more popular concept today than at any moment in history. It’s on the lips of everyone from the Dalai Lama to relationship counsellors, from business gurus to happiness experts, from political protesters to ecological activists. And it’s not surprising, since over the last decade neuroscientists have discovered that 98% of us have empathy wired into our brains. The old story that we are basically selfish, self-interested creatures has been debunked. Our selfish inner drives exist side by side with our empathic other half. We are homo empathicus.

Although we are wired for empathy, few of us have fulfilled our full empathic potential. The good news is that we can get better at it: empathy can be learned, like riding a bike or driving a car. How exactly? One way is simply to focus intently on trying to understand other people’s feelings and needs – doing so can expand our care and concern, and spur us to take action on their behalves. We can also step out onto the street and nurture our curiosity about strangers, having conversations that get beyond superficial talk as a way of challenging our (often mistaken) assumptions about others.

A further, crucial method of expanding our empathy is by making the imaginative leap in other people’s lives through books and films – and that’s why the Empathy Library has been created.

The founder of the Empathy Library, writer and cultural thinker Roman Krznaric, believes that empathy can be a guiding light for the art of living and a powerful tool for social change. Empathy can create a revolution. Not one of those old-fashioned revolutions based on new laws, institutions or governments, but something much more radical: a revolution of human relationships.

To find out more about empathy:

> Read Roman Krznaric’s new book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution

> Watch his 10-minute RSA Animate, The Power of Outrospection