Whether on stage or on the page, I often assert that, “travel can not only improve each of our lives, but it can also make the world a better place.” I suggest this instinctively, but then I have to step back and ask myself, “Well, how exactly does travel do that?
One of the pathways in my experience is through motivating a practice and expression of genuine empathy, or “the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective.” Listening to, understanding and connecting with the feelings, thoughts, and stories of others — especially those entirely different from your own — can not only enrich and improve your experience at hand, but it can also simultaneously improve your well-being.
The practice of empathy — and yes, it’s a practice — is about open-ness, creating an opening in one’s self to another. Empathy requires suspending your judgment of others and leaving your assumptions, stereotypes and fears at the door.
Which brings me to an observation-lesson about some of the most life-changing travel experiences we’ve enjoyed: if you wish a transformative experience, you must remain vulnerable to being transformed, and to changes, sometimes fundamental, in yourself. To achieve this, you must open yourself up and make yourself susceptible to impression.
Fortunately, empathy is self-reinforcing. Set off to travel with empathy, and the more empathy you are likely to develop along your journey. Empathy is also subject to amplification. As empathy serves as an access mechanism to deeper experience, deeper experience in turn tunes our sense of empathy. Likewise, the greater your expression of empathy, the more empathy is likely to be reflected back to you.
Compound empathy. It’s the snowball effect of practiced empathy that encourages greater shared understanding and connection in our world.
Sold on the concept of empathy? Now onto how practicing empathy can enhance your travel experiences.
1) Opens Others
Demonstrating empathy to others creates a non-judgmental environment and expands trust. When others are open, they share of themselves. When they share, they create moments by virtue of what and how they share. The sum of those moments affects us and motivates us to share in return.
It’s a cycle, whether it's one composed of stories of personal struggle or common joys.
When we speak about moments in travel that we’ll never forget, we'll find that they reside often in the company of others. Powerful and almost inexplicable in their simplicity and shared humanity, these shared moments re-affirm the essence of life experience and shed a little more light on the meaning of our own lives.
2) Allows New Experiences to Stream In
Travel is about new experiences. When we open ourselves up and turn off our judgment in the pursuit of understanding the feelings of people around us, we simultaneously expose ourselves to impressions and experiences that we might not otherwise register.
Think of empathy as aiding a heightened observation and sensual register. In that mode, new impressions and experiences flow in our direction and into our consciousness more freely.
3) Expands Our Range of Understanding
Empathy not only yields new experiences, but it also enables us to more broadly understand those experiences. Travel with empathy, and you'll be more tuned into the socioeconomic and cultural contexts in which you move. This will enable you to ask better questions of people and to increase your depth of understanding of their homes and their culture.
After all, isn’t that one of the primary objectives of travel, and especially experiential travel — to understand our world better? The essence of empathy is understanding the world of another — their feelings, intentions, desires, and needs. The strange thing about understanding the feelings of another is that doing so may at once better help us to understand ourselves.
4) Builds Trust to Yield Greater Authenticity
When we listen to and attempt to understand others and reflect back to them our best understanding, it builds the “emotional bank account” between us. This account reflects and reinforces trust.
On the road, this yields two great benefits. It invites individuals to be fully real and genuine, rather than to wear masks and play roles, thereby encouraging greater individual authenticity – and as a consequence, more authentic experiences — to emerge.
5) Assists Immersion and Creativity
There exists great love for the term “immersion,” particularly as it relates to learning and travel. Practicing empathy helps us immerse ourselves through the act of opening up fully to the people and context around us.
Studies suggest that living abroad deepens our immersion and thus our creative thinking. From experience, I won’t argue with that. But let’s merge this wisdom. On your next trip apply empathy as a technique to immerse yourself. Though you may not feel the same creative thinking return as having lived in that destination, you’ll surely enhance it by connecting with the destination and its people more deeply.
The more we empathic we become, the more adaptive we will be to the ways of the world. And the more pliable we will be to the unforeseen circumstances thrown at us while we’re on the road.
6) Aids Conflict Resolution
Studies have also demonstrated that empathy is the active ingredient in conflict resolution. The demonstration of genuine empathy towards others allows them greater room to understand us. Unless you are fan of conflict in your travel transactions, the upshot of this is hopefully obvious.
Genuine empathy can not only can help you get more of what you want, but it will also enable both parties to come away feeling as if they are whole and have benefited from the transaction.
Whether you are negotiating an issue with a hotel room, logistics or the details of a day trip or entire itinerary, taking a moment out to understand the people with whom you are negotiating and interacting can help them deliver you better results. Particularly when emotions flare and people around us feel threatened, a little dose of empathy can help cool the situation, thereby helping others to help us.
7) Fosters Good, Pleasurable and Positive Feelings
I think we understand this on a personal level. Isn’t it a pleasant feeling when you know and feel that someone is really listening to you, attempting to understand not only what you are saying, but also the feelings behind the words you are using to convey them?
When you do this to others it comes back to you, and deep personal connections are formed, including some of the ones that remain with you your whole life.
8) Aids Understanding Others’ Needs So You Can Effectively Contribute
If you are altruistically minded and hope to help others on your travels or in your work abroad, here’s a question to ask yourself: How can I expect to help others if I don’t first seek to understand who they are and what it is that they truly need?
If you expect to have a lasting impact on the world, you must first tune yourself to the needs of its individuals and communities and ditch for a moment any assumptions that you know what is best.
For many, this is an offensive pill to swallow. Let me explain.
This is something we’ve seen go amiss in aid and volunteer programs around the world. Outsiders come in, usually from countries with more privilege, assuming from their background that they know what the local community wants, instead of letting go momentarily and truly listening and understanding the local context with suspended judgment. Perhaps this is why too many of these projects often fail outright, are not sustainable, or reap unintended negative consequences.
With the application of active empathy, there can be another way. This approach can help deliver better what the community needs and wants. It also empowers because the beneficiaries or stakeholders understand that you are listening to and respecting them as experts — in the thoughts and feelings they have regarding their own circumstances.
Great, Dan, but what if I’m not naturally empathic?
I can empathize. Empathy takes effort, particularly for those of us whose psychological preferences tend to the rational and the thinking, rather the feeling. That’s OK, though. Just because empathy doesn’t flow automatically from you like water from a faucet doesn’t mean you can’t prime the pump. You can begin to develop and cultivate your empathic capability by:
- Listening, truly (it's harder than you might think)
- Slowing down, putting the devices away and being present
- Setting aside and suspending your judgment
- Acknowledging and challenging your prejudice
- Seeking out and speaking to strangers whose lives and worldviews are vastly different than your own
- Imagining what it’s like to walk a mile in the shoes of the person across from you
- Looking for commonality, especially when things seem radically different than what you are accustomed to
- Cultivating, especially in conversation, an interest in others
When you do this, it might feel a little uncomfortable, even painful. But like any muscle, the empathy muscle takes some development, some stretching. The more you work it, the more you’ll find yourself and others feeling remarkable when you do.
Empathy is self-serving. It’s good for you while simultaneously being helpful to the ends you seek. Your empathic responses while traveling also help build empathy in the people you meet. Together, you and they and we can understand the world a little better.
Why does this matter? It matters so that we might deliver on a promise, the promise that our travels can build a little more peace in ourselves and a little more peace in our world.
In travel as in life, empathy.