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8 Ways Empathy Can Improve Your Travels…And Your Life


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On your next trip, don’t forget to pack your empathy.

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?
empathy
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.

Enter empathy.

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.

Audrey Chatting with Iranian Student
Taking the train from Iran to Turkey, Audrey listens to an Iranian high school student.

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?

Talking Burma
Aiming to understand about life and dreams in rural Burma (Myanmar).

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.

About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

35 thoughts on “8 Ways Empathy Can Improve Your Travels…And Your Life”

  1. nicely done. keep up the good work..
    travel and meeting others is one of the ways I developed my empathy. It was from seeing our global common humanity.

    Reply
    • Edwin, I’d love to hear about a specific travel experience where you developed empathy and how it happened. Can you share with us?

      Reply
  2. This is beautiful, Dan. You’re totally speaking my language.

    I love that you bring up vulnerability. In my experience, it’s getting vulnerable and surrendering my own point of view and really taking in someone else’s that allows for empathy. Listening and taking down walls to connect with someone else’s place in life and feelings, that’s empathy.

    Living and working in El Salvador, Myanmar, other places, I had to shed some of my cultural lens and take in that something that’s different than the way I did it was just that different, and I had to take away the judgement that my way or what was familiar was necessarily better. I didn’t do it perfectly by any stretch, but that helped me be of the most service to others.

    Love this post, Dan!!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Bessie. I love your comment, particularly the idea that your continued development of empathy allowed you to be “the most service to others.” I also like your choice of language: “surrendering my own point of view.” While surrender may sound like an inclination to weakness, it certainly is not in this case. In fact, I think it’s a path, if not the only path, to strength.

      One of the reasons it is so difficult to suspend judgment and abandon the familiar is that “our way” often becomes part of our identity. In moving on to new discoveries, we have to let go a little bit of the old identity and way to make room for some of the new.

      Reply
  3. I love what you said about Empathy being a practice. I couldn’t agree more. When not travelling, I am a counsellor at a Toronto high school. Empathy education should absolutely be part of the daily routine in all school settings. I consciously try to interweave this theme in all of my initiatives and interactions and try to instill this trait in my own son. Nice post!

    Reply
    • Thank you, Kim. Agreed, empathy ought to be integrated into children’s lives and education. Not only will it build a better citizenry, but I think it may even help students develop and better comprehend STEM skills like math and science that education policymakers are always after.

      Reply
  4. Great post. I agree that it’s only through empathy that others will open up to us and when that happens our experience is enriched. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

    Reply
  5. I like to think that I can be an empathetic person, and sometimes I think I put too much thought into other people’s emotions. But other times I WAY miss the mark! Traveling has helped me see how people live and act differently. Especially between Asia and North America. The difference in attitude is huge!

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment, Heather. I can empathize. I offer that quite seriously. I find myself going headlong into some interactions. Sometimes I feel as though I’ve given too much thought, not so much to the other person’s feelings, but perhaps to the experience and its meaning. In any event, I’m not certain we can overdo empathy, but there’s definitely some balance to be drawn when the process does something like drain our energy or exhaust us.

      Reply
  6. I think listening is truly the root to empathy. We live in a world of 140 character attention spans. That translates to our conversations. Our minds wonder and we miss the beauty in the story we are hearing. We are missing the connection. We are missing the ability to understand because we are thinking about whether or not we have a Facebook comment waiting and would it be rude to check while this person is talking. Or we’re thinking about what we want to say. In those moments, neither is important.

    Reply
    • Agreed, Bryan. Listening is where it begins. To be thinking about whether or not one has a Facebook comment to be responded to while we have someone right in front of us strikes me not only as rude, but missing out on the juice of life. Regarding thinking about what one wants to say, I suspect that’s a common struggle for many of us. I try to tell myself what I think is closer to the truth: most people wish more to be heard than to be told the answer. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      Reply
  7. Beautiful words. I’m bookmarking this post, what you’re saying completely speaks to me right now at the very start of my travels. I feel the need to connect more with people and the world I’m experiencing but it’s hard to do, to break the pattern of living in an insular world as I did back home. Your insights and tips are so useful.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Charlie. Glad this and other tips resonate and good to see you here. We’ll look forward to more of your thoughts in the future!

      Reply
  8. Beautiful post. My time in Rwanda is probably where I learnt empathy the most. The people were amazing- so humble and so happy even though they had been through so much. I found myself not just emphasising with them but also being inspired by them.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Britt. Very kind. I’m glad this piece resonated with you, in general and in particular with your experience in Rwanda. We’ll look forward to hearing more from you.

      Reply
  9. You’re bang on with the last point. I’ve seen people with good intentions but with no understanding of what people needed. An example of this was when I was in Sapa volunteering and some travellers raised money to donate to a school and instead, bought them a water filter. Their intention was to have it replace already heavily subsidised water that already costs next to nothing. Little did they know that it would require constant maintenance and upkeep which would have cost the school more money in the long run.

    Reply
    • Sounds like a familiar problem, Jimmy. What’s frustrating for everyone involved is that they either need help or would like to help, but somewhere along the way assumptions and mistakes are made. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      Reply
  10. Nice Post never heard anything related travel and empathy. Well explained with practical examples. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I ll try to practice empathy, hoping I’ll succeed .

    Reply
  11. Yes, you can say that empathy is a practice, which is good. It helps people to be a better human being and can make this world better for living. It is important on every point of life whether it’s on travel or living. It can solve many problems and eliminate chaos. We need to practice empathy not only among human but also for animals. They are the one who need our help more than human. Then only this world would be better place for them too.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Sinh. Empathy is good for all living creatures, really. And I could not agree more that empathy would be a good behavioral starting point to solve many of our problems in this world.

      Reply
  12. I think you hit the nail on the head with #8.

    Coming from a ‘developed country’ we sometimes try to ‘help’ others by changing the way locals do something rather then assist in the way its already done. Just because we come from a wealthier country does not mean we know everything (I don’t mean this in a malicious way, its just the way we naturally/subconsciously think sometimes).

    Great perspective!

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment and spurring some additional thoughts, Mike. I’m with you regarding intent. Often, it’s not malicious, though the outcome in the short- or long-term can be destructive. I think it’s often deceptively easy to see what appear to be “obvious” solutions when one stands on the mountaintop of privilege. The problem occurs when, as you point out, one comes down to arrive at ground level only to find circumstances different and more complicated. Perhaps that’s where maybe I ought to have suggested a dash of self-awareness be thrown into the suitcase along with empathy.

      Reply
  13. Empathy is absolutely important and can affect those around you, when you lead by example. I do feel though, you need a mental surplus in order to help others. As an American in India at the moment, it can be difficult to show empathy as you’d never put your wallet away with people constantly in your face looking for a handout.

    So in some case, perhaps empathy needs to be rationed so to speak, depending upon the situation and your comfort level.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your perspective, Jeff. I really appreciate your comment, including the concept of mental surplus. I also appreciate the various circumstances that can help to create a deficit, including some of the challenges of traveling in developing areas, parts of India included. Although I appreciate where your sentiment comes from, I’m not sure that empathy needs to be rationed per se. Perhaps our reactions ought to be balanced and measured in light of our empathy?

      This reminds me of an article we wrote that breaks down our approach to begging. Would be curious to get your thoughts.
      https://uncorneredmarket.com/should-travelers-give-to-kids-who-beg/

      Reply
  14. In my travels, I always strike a conversation with the locals—even if I don’t speak their language. A hello goes a long way—or even just with a smile. By doing so, I get to know a bit of their life, dreams, happiness and struggles.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Alain. A hello goes a long way, as does attention to the feelings and circumstances of those we are speaking to. The concept of hello reminds me of our recent visit to Haiti and one of the country’s favorite proverbs, “A greeting is your passport.”

      Reply
  15. Great article, totally agree with this. In India in particular, we found the effect of us mimicking the famous ‘head wobble’ incredible for helping us show empathy and openness to connect with the locals we came across. It typically changed their whole attitude towards us and resulted in a reciprocation of it, usually followed by warm open questions that sparked lots of wonderful conversations and understanding about each other that otherwise may not have happened, especially on train journeys!

    Reply
    • Ah, the Indian head waggle. I have been working on that since my first visit almost 20 years ago. Requires a bit of dexterity. I’m glad to hear that you found India so rewarding, particularly in the area of relating and expressing and developing empathy. There certainly is plenty of opportunity in India given its diversity. We also find India and its people quite open in terms of interaction, so it’s as good a place as any to exercise the empathy muscle.

      Agreed — Indian trains are a microcosm of Indian life.. I hope you had the chance to travel on all classes. Very eye-opening, and not just on the 3rd class trains 🙂

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Laura.

      Reply
  16. In my travels, I always strike a conversation with the locals—even if I don’t speak their language. A hello goes a long way—or even just with a smile. By doing so, I get to know a bit of their life, dreams, happiness and struggles.

    Great article, totally agree with this. In India in particular, we found the effect of us mimicking the famous ‘head wobble’ incredible for helping us show empathy and openness to connect with the locals we came across. It typically changed their whole attitude towards us and resulted in a reciprocation of it, usually followed by warm open questions that sparked lots of wonderful conversations and understanding about each other that otherwise may not have happened, especially on train journeys!

    Reply
    • Getting to know a bit of their life, dreams, happiness, and struggles — I like that. If travel teaches nothing else, it does seem to suggest that we have a lot in common with which we can relate to one another.

      Reply
  17. Coming from a ‘developed country’ we sometimes try to ‘help’ others by changing the way locals do something rather then assist in the way its already done. Just because we come from a wealthier country does not mean we know everything (I don’t mean this in a malicious way, its just the way we naturally/subconsciously think sometimes).

    Empathy is absolutely important and can affect those around you, when you lead by example. I do feel though, you need a mental surplus in order to help others. As an American in India at the moment, it can be difficult to show empathy as you’d never put your wallet away with people constantly in your face looking for a handout.

    Reply
    • Agree, there’s plenty of “developed world” savior arrogance about in travel circles, as well as various professional contexts as well.

      Your observations regarding travel in India resonate with me. A mental surplus helps, especially but not always, in allowing us the space to perceive our own biases. And that perception, to my mind, allows us the openness required to kickstart empathy.

      Reply

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