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Effective Advocacy: Practice Empathy and Compassion

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“Empathy promotes peace, prevents violent escalations, and preserves lives. Even science supports the idea that empathy, compassion, and tolerance—not aggression—are the most effective antidotes to violence.” ~ from the book Phoenix Zones, p. 90

Research shows that many humans and nonhumans exhibit empathy.

Researchers have extensively studied empathy in humans and numerous other species, including nonhuman primates, rats, mice, rabbits, elephants, birds (including chickens), wolves, coyotes, dogs, and even insects. And human infants can display empathy as early as at a few months old.

But we’re often not taught to develop our empathy for other human and nonhuman beings, and any natural inclination for empathy can be quashed.

And research shows that human empathy may be decreasing—especially for others we perceive as different or undeserving.

An important component of being an effective advocate is practicing empathy—including for some who are causing harm and with those we are trying to influence—and helping other people build their empathy and compassionate action.

Empathy is sometimes categorized as either affective (or emotional) empathy, which refers to the feelings we get in response to others’ emotions, and cognitive empathy—or perspective taking—which involves our ability to identify and understand others’ emotions and motivations.

All types are important.

Cultivating compassion is perhaps even more important than empathy, because compassion includes taking action to help others.

Here are some practices to help cultivate your own compassion and empathy for others:

  • Cultivate curiosity about others.
  • Challenge your own prejudices about others.
  • See other human and nonhuman beings as individuals, with their own inner lives, needs, and interests.
  • Find commonalities with others.
  • If possible, get some direct experience of others’ lives.
  • Listen to others.
  • Practice being vulnerable.
  • Practice empathizing with those whose beliefs you don’t share.
  • Believe in your power to do good.
  • Take action to help others.

Here are some ways to cultivate compassion and empathy in others:

  • Model empathy and compassionate action for them.
  • Tell them stories about other individuals, especially those about whom they may have biases or preconceptions.
  • If possible, give them a chance to respectfully meet others and experience a part of their lives.
  • Provide them with safe ways to challenge their own worldviews.
  • Help them learn about the rationalizations and other tricks we can use to justify harmful beliefs and actions.
  • Connect your issue with their underlying values.
  • Ask them questions.
  • Engage in strategies that help them expand their circles of moral concern.
  • Provide them with opportunities to help.


The Science of Compassion” by Compassionate Action Network
Six Habits of Highly Empathic People” by Roman Krznaric
Unselfie by Michele Borba
Why Intentionally Building Empathy is More Important Than Ever” by KQED

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