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February 24, 2010, at 9:43 pm — Audio | audio podcast | Blogs / / / / / /

Listening leads to Empathy

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I was watching a TED talk by MIT scientist Rebecca Saxe on how the human mind is programmed to feel for others. In fact, there is a part of the brain that controls our ability to empathize. Development of this part of the brain is shown to start in young children, all the way up to young adults. This got me thinking; how does one develop this part of the brain in a healthy way? How do we connect with others? As we were taught in kindergarten, it is through communication. Listening, a part of the communication exchange, can be the gateway to developing empathy.

In a world where we are bombarded with social networking tools reducing us to character quotas and static impressions of our day, it is even more necessary to consciously take time to listen and empathize with the people who matter in our lives. If we don’t, isolation and detachment will continue to disconnect us from belonging to the collective, which as humans is a natural and necessary predilection.

With the advancement of technology mobilizing every part of our lives, we can choose who and what enters our psyche. We choose what phone calls to answer. We choose which Facebook messages to reciprocate. Technology has made us extremely efficient. But at what expense? If we decide that efficiency is one of the most important values, perhaps it is possible when choosing to perk an ear to what we care to hear and nothing else, we miss out on ideas and deepening of relationships, which best occur happenstance. Technology encourages a measured life and the likelihood of chance encounters is hard to come by.

That said, communication technology could prove to be a productive tool for rekindling lost relationships, even if they do seem superficial. But I am left wondering about the fulfillment level of such relationships. I operate with the assumption that as a society we should move towards a higher level of awareness. When I apply this to my relationships, communicating constructively, mainly through listening, is an important way for me to deepen my connections.

To be better listeners, we are often forced to put our own feelings aside to better understand the person’s state of mind. We are put in a position to comprehend the underlying emotions in the content of the message, in hopes of giving appropriate feedback. We look for non-verbal communication, which helps us understand the unsaid. We become at the disposal of our loved ones for a short snippet of time and in that moment, we learn to get out of own heads and connect with someone whose well-being matters to us. We allow them the space to vent and give them guidance from what we know. In this process, we define our role in the collective good, following suit with the designations in our brain, which gives us the space to empathize.


4 comments to Listening leads to Empathy

  • Sunz

    Great essay. I found your assertion that happenstance seems to be best for deepening relationships interesting. I was wondering if you could expand on this.

  • Jeremy Olsen

    Me too, Sarah. I think that was a little “light bulb moment” for me.

  • Sarah Jawaid

    thanks for the comments!


    i tend to be a spatial thinker. i think public spaces in cities are really important for being to randomly congregate and meet people they otherwise wouldn’t, in hopes of deepening their connection with the outside world. that space, open to the public, creates an opportunity for these chance encounters to occur. but in an increasingly mobile and privatized world, so many face to face conversations are lost and in this process, we loose something even deeper; the ability to connect with someone in real time and listen, eventually leading to empathy.

  • Jeremy Olsen

    Some interesting situations devloping along these lines:

    I recently heard an NPR report about how young Chinese men are picking up video games at a very speedy rate. (Couldn’t find a link.) More time with a computer, less happenstance social interaction.

    Italian men in particular are living with their parents longer. More time without the need for work and errands. Less of that happenstance social interaction.

    And there’s the development of “smart elevators” with “destination control,” which assigns one elevator specifically to you once you’ve called it to go to a particular floor. (In the New York times.) More efficiency, fewer opportunities for happenstance social and business interaction.

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