Open your mind: Roman Krznaric on empathy

Psychologies' deputy editor Lauren Hadden speaks to cultural thinker Roman Krznaric about opening our hearts and freeing our minds


Open your mind: Roman Krznaric on empathy

Few of us are as open minded as we’d like to believe. It takes effort to challenge your prejudices and become a more flexible thinker. But the road to empathy is intensely rewarding, once you learn the steps.

Step 1 (IS EASY)

Read a book or watch a film: History and culture can teach us a huge amount about how to shift our thinking and challenge our own prejudices. Start by watching, or rewatching, Schindler’s List, an inspiring film about a paid-up member of the Nazi party who gradually goes through a transformation and begins to humanise others. ‘Watch and notice the moments where he overcomes his prejudice and becomes a flexible thinker,’ says Krznaric. Good books are always a window on a new world – a way of seeing things from somebody else’s point of view. Krznaric recommends the life story of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who over the course of a long life fundamentally changed his views on issues that were important to him. ‘He started from an aristocratic background and he was an army officer and a Royalist. After serving as a soldier he was so disgusted by what he saw that he became a pacifist. He’s an enormous inspiration as someone who challenged their fundamental beliefs, upbringing and cultural background.’ Or read The Wonderbox (Profile), Krzrnaric’s own book about what history can teach us about empathy and our belief systems.  


Start a conversation: ‘We all have a tendency to use collective labels – we call somebody a hoodie, or a toff, or a yob – and those words are a barrier to seeing people’s individuality and uniqueness – their humanness. We make clichéd associations – people talk about Jews being stingy or say all African-Americans are great at dancing. All these things are failures to understand individuality.  We need to cultivate our curiosity about strangers – to break out of our own social circles we need to nurture the art of conversation. Many of us don’t even know the people living on our own street. So one thing we need to do is at least have a conversation with a stranger once a week.’ Krznaric emphasises that that means getting beyond the usual, superficial conversations about the weather and getting to the important stuff, finding out what matters to the other person.  


Listen carefully: We’re often told about how important it is to listen to others. This step is about deepening the conversations you are now having and asks you to listen on two levels – firstly to be quiet and open ourselves up to what the other person has to say, really trying to hear it. The second is to ‘make ourselves vulnerable’, as Krznaric puts it, to open up about our own fears and worries, to be honest. He calls it ‘radical listening’; an honest exchange of feelings, allowing both sides time to speak and be heard. This can be hardest with the people closest to us, but it’s amazing what can happen if you sit, listen and avoid the urge to judge or offer solutions. Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, in his book The Examined Life (Chatto), describes the process well: ‘It’s about listening to each other, not just the words but the gaps in between. What I’m describing here isn’t a magical process. It’s something that is a part of our everyday lives.’    


Empathise with your enemy: It’s one thing to empathise with a friend or an unfortunate stranger, says Krznaric, but we need to go further: ‘I think we need to be more adventurous and try and step into the mindsets of people whose views and values we fundamentally disagree with. One way to do that is simply to ask yourself the penetrating question, “Who are my three greatest enemies and how might I bridge the divide with them?” Those enemies may well be your nasty boss who makes your life hell. It might be a sibling who you haven’t spoken to for ten years. It could be someone whose views you radically disagree with.’ Krznaric gives a moving example: ‘There’s a group called the Parents’ Circle in Israel, which is a really great example of how to challenge prejudices. It’s an organisation of Palestinians and Israelis who all have something in common – they’ve all had a family member killed in the conflict. Families come together from opposite sides for meetings where they share each other’s stories and so discover that they share the same pain and the same blood. They realise the other side are not just caricatures in a newspaper.’ It’s an amazing example of grassroots empathy.’  


Go on an adventure: Krznaric recommends a ‘God Swap’: ‘Go on some experiential adventures which put you into the world of another. So if you happen to be a fervent believer in one religion, why don’t you spend a month going to a service of a different religion or a meeting of humanists. Equally, if you’re an atheist, go to temples and cathedrals and so on once a week for a month and see what that does to your mind. Because what we do know is that we learn through experience. Writer George Orwell discovered just how prejudiced he was about the homeless when he actually walked the streets and spent time with them. The result was the book Down And Out In Paris And London. His discovery, that opening himself up to their experiences, being empathic, was not just a morally good thing to do but was good for his own development too.  

Roman Krznaric is a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living. He is a founding faculty member of The School of Life, and advises organisations including Oxfam and the United Nations on using empathy and conversation to create social change. He has been named by The Observer as one of Britain's leading lifestyle philosophers. His latest books include Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution (Rider), The Wonderbox: Curious Histories Of How To Live (Profile Books) and How To Find Fulfilling Work (Macmillan). He blogs on empathy and the art of living and for further details visit his website,