Note: it's not easy.
Step 1: Find the connection
It is incredibly difficult to care about something or someone in an authentic way without relating somehow. How deep that relation is and the significance of it is completely up to you. There are blood relatives that feel disconnected from one another, while two strangers can meaningfully bond over a cigarette on a street corner. For this first part, you decide what’s important.
I have a simple trick for finding something in common with someone: I look at the facts. The most basic fact, that which is the foundation of reason to care, is simple and shared by all (even you, the person or robot reading this):
It is the foundation of love, and the way and reason I am able to connect to people so quickly. Being hyperconscious of this fact has compelled me to give a shit more times than not, in ways that have been more fulfilling than most. Connecting to you is connecting to myself, is connecting to God, is connecting to my environment, is connecting to my past and to all my possibilities. It’s like holding hands for the soul. I know it sounds cheesy as hell, but there really isn’t a better way to describe it. “That touched me” is a physical phrase we use to describe a sensation deeper than our physical bodies, although it isn’t necessarily the proper language for it.
Being in the world together is an incredible thing we share. It weaves us onto the same line of existence. It’s also quality enough for me to love you. Of course my love and care is not bound to existence — there are many people for whom I have developed a great love for and have not shared a direct existence with — but you being here with me is reason enough, deserving of a very special kind of respect. Finding this connection is a crucial step one.
Step 2: Be insatiably curious
Not a little curious– no. Fall in love with learning. There isn’t a person on this earth that I cannot learn from. It doesn’t matter if it’s learning how to do something, what to do, what not to do, why or when — I am not so above it all that there is nothing left for me to discover or refine in this world. Coming to people with a deep desire to learn 1) fosters real human connection and 2) promotes never ending progress. The latter can sound discouraging if you let it, but rather than be upset that you will never know it all, try leaning on the side of joy for the unknown. Be excited by it.
Let that hunger be an opportunity to connect. Learning is the easiest, most flattering way to bridge a bond that gives you an opportunity to grow in ways you could have never imagined. Ask questions, provide tools for communication; eagerly, rigorously learn.
Step 3: Lose yourself briefly
Allow yourself to be both immersed completely and one tug away from your own reality. You’ll need this skill in order to understand things well and still be removed enough to see them clearly. This kind of immersion requires a sort of break in boundaries. Or as Psychologist John Townsend would say, utilizing the gate. A boundary with a door that opens and closes, rather than a brick wall. Open the gate to let things in and to let things out.
This last step feels more or less like a magic trick. You are in a place, and then you aren’t. You feel everything, and then you step out and observe it. I call it contextual immersion, and if you can’t get there physically, you can get there with the use of intense visualization and imagination. This third step is also the most emotionally taxing.
It’s often a struggle to feel people so well, but practicing empathy is an enormously valuable tool for problem solving and a method of connecting that provides integrity within bonds. It’s also a very human marker; we can build tools that have empathic components in the use of responsive words, but not ones that share feelings. Not yet at least. And until then, as far as assets go, empathy is a strong one.