Can you quickly figure out and understand why a person is feeling the way they do?
Do you feel the same emotion that they are experiencing?
Do you seek a way to help them and ease their suffering?
Empathy is a skill that some people have in abundance, but in which others are severely lacking. Yet, empathy can be learned, even as an adult.
Empathy is important for many reasons, but at its heart it is a bridge between you and another individual.
Despite living on a planet of some seven billion souls, we spend our entire lives mentally isolated. We are unable to experience the world other than through our own senses and via the canvas of our mind’s eye. Except, that is, when we are able to empathize. Then we are able to catch a glimpse of life beyond our own perspective; we can “see” through the eyes of another person.
This connection, at a much deeper level than usual, is why developing your empathy is so very important.
Would you like to know how?
First, let’s briefly explore the meaning of empathy.
What Is Empathy?
In a single sentence…
Empathy is being able to put yourself in the shoes of another person and see, think, and feel from their perspective.
But there’s more to it than that. In fact, psychologist Paul Ekman has defined three distinct types of empathy.
These were touched upon in the introduction to this article. They are:
- Cognitive empathy, which is the ability to rationally comprehend how a person is feeling, what they might be thinking, and why they feel and think the way they do. This is a purely mental process in which one collects relevant information and deduces from it the emotional state of another individual.
- Emotional empathy, which is the experience of feeling the emotions of others as if they were one’s own. Further to just being able to understand the reasons for a person’s emotional state from an intellectual standpoint, one can internalize those reasons so that one feels what they feel to some degree.
- Compassionate empathy, which is the drive to offer our help and support to the person experiencing the emotions. Since you understand why a person may be thinking and feeling a certain way, and you experience some of those same thoughts and feelings in response, you are in a prime position to help them.
How To Develop Empathy Skills
Now that you know why empathy is such an important life skill and what it actually means to have empathy, let’s explore some of the key ways to hone yours.
1. Turn Your Attention Toward Others
We humans are very self-centric beings. We spend almost every waking moment focused on ourselves, our work, our problems, our thoughts, and our feelings.
Given that it acts as a bridge between us and others, it should come as no surprise that…
The first requirement of empathy is to turn your attention outward and focus on other people.
This means avoiding all of the usual distractions: our phones, our TVs, our books, our gadgets, our chores, and even our own thoughts and feelings.
To truly empathize with a person, you must be utterly present with them. You must make them the focus of your attention and be with them and there for them.
This means mastering the art of…
2. Active Listening
When you are listening to someone talk, are you really hearing their words, or are you lost in your own thoughts?
Many people listen in order to respond. They take in and process the words being spoken on a surface level, but they don’t fully grasp the entirety of what is being said.
They are either lost in their own thoughts or are distracted by other things. They are not present; they are not fully engaged with the other person.
To truly listen to someone, you must notice not only what they are saying, but how they are saying it, what their body language is telling you, what their facial expressions are communicating.
Active listening means asking questions to delve deeper into a person’s true feelings and to gain more insight into their circumstances.
It means remaining silent for much of the time so that they feel able to pour their hearts out without interruption.
It means clarifying anything that they say which might be unclear to you to avoid misunderstandings.
3. See The Human Being
When you look at a person, don’t just see their appearance, their job, or even their actions. See them as a human being.
Recognize that they have a past and that it might include trauma or struggles. If they have made mistakes, remind yourself that you have too.
We often forget that the person we’re speaking to is facing their own challenges and troubles. Yet, if you can remind yourself of this, you’ll find you adopt a softer approach and feel more of a connection.
4. Validate Their Feelings
One common mistake people make when trying to help others is to minimize or invalidate their feelings.
It’s often done with good intentions, but by using phrases such as “It’s not that bad,” or “Things will work out, you’ll see,” you diminish the other person’s problems.
As soon as you do this, the other person will feel less able to open up about their feelings. You confirm to them that you don’t really understand what they’re going through.
Instead, you have to really use your imagination and put yourself in their shoes.
- If you were facing what they are facing, how do you think you’d feel?
- What would you want someone to say to you?
- You may even try to recall a time or situation in which you felt what they are feeling now. Did someone try to tell you that you were overreacting, or that it’ll all be fine? How did this make you feel?
By taking this approach, you’ll realize that what they need most right now is for someone to tell them that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling.
You don’t have to offer solutions to their problems straight away; perhaps it’s not the right time. You just have to let them know that you are there and that you understand.
5. Make It About Them, Not You
Did I mention that we humans can be a bit self-centric at times? Yeah, I think I did.
This often manifests as story-topping. In other words, conversational one-upmanship in which you take someone’s problem and make it all about you, only worse.
If your partner says, “I’ve had a really lousy day at work,” don’t respond with, “Oh, me too,” before regaling them with stories about how your boss got mad at you or a colleague did something to upset you.
Sure, you might have had a hard day, but right now you should be asking them why their day sucked. They clearly need to vent and you should give them the opportunity.
Once they’ve had their say and you’ve sympathized with them and validated their feelings, they’ll probably ask you how your day was. Unless you are really, genuinely upset as well, try not to make it sound too bad.
Similarly, if someone tells you that they’re off on vacation, don’t instantly launch into stories of your own holiday plans. Ask them questions about what they intend to do there, where they are staying, how long they are staying for, etc.
People want to feel part of a conversation; they want to feel listened to and spoken to, as opposed to spoken at. If all you do is talk about yourself, no connection will be formed and no empathy will exist between the two of you.
6. Be Open And Vulnerable
With all that was said in the previous point, you might be surprised to learn that this tip involves talking about yourself.
But it doesn’t just involve spouting off about any old thing.
One way to develop empathy and build a connection with another human being is to SHOW your human side by being open and vulnerable.
Empathy is a two-way street, so it is not only your empathy for the other person that is important, it is their empathy toward you too.
You don’t have to bear your soul, but if you can share experiences in which you have struggled – perhaps where it relates to their current struggles, you can break down one of the main barriers to communication.
You can build trust by showing that you are flawed, like we all are. People are far more open with someone when they feel they won’t be judged, and by showing your own vulnerable side, you are giving them the confidence to speak freely.
7. Pause Before Speaking
Don’t just let the first words that enter your head pass your lips in some sort of verbal diarrhea. Give yourself time to reflect on the best way to respond to someone.
By pausing, you are able to consider any biases or preconceptions that might be influencing you and silence them before they lead you to say something you regret.
Remember to see the human being as we talked about earlier. Let what you say be relevant to the conversation, but try not to let the person’s background, beliefs, appearance, or age influence what you say.
Pausing also allows you to gather and organize your thoughts on the issue at hand. A brief period of contemplation often leads to a more considered and helpful response.
Taking a breath before speaking will also allow you to think about all of those things we’ve discussed above.
8. Don’t Instantly Dismiss Opposing Views
When defining empathy, we talked about the three different levels or types. The first of these – cognitive empathy – involves gaining an understanding of why a person thinks and feels the way they do.
With this in mind, it becomes important not to simply dismiss views that you do not personally agree with.
When you are trying to see through another’s eyes, you have to put your views to one side temporarily so that you can better comprehend theirs.
Whether it’s a political leaning, a religious view, an opinion on gender, or someone’s morals and values, try to understand how a person might have reached their position and accept that their view is not invalid simply because it clashes with yours.
In fact, to give you a wider worldview and be more open to differences of opinion, it can be beneficial to speak to people whose opinions you disagree with and read books and articles which offer similarly challenging views.
You don’t have to accept everything you hear or read, but it will build your awareness of how and why someone thinks and feels the way they do – and that’s all cognitive empathy is at the end of the day.
9. Use Your Imagination
Empathy requires you to walk in another’s shoes to understand what they're going through. This requires an element of imagination.
And the more you use your imagination, the easier it becomes to take yourself off into a mental world full of possibilities.
So let yourself daydream, read fiction novels, follow guided meditations, or practice other visualization techniques; anything that needs you to imagine people and places and events in your mind.
10. People Watch
Remember the third tip on this list about seeing the human being and not just another person? Well, one way to hone this skill is to watch people that you don’t know and wonder who they are, what their stories are, and how they are feeling.
You can do this whilst sitting in a coffee shop, on a train, whilst walking down the street, or anywhere else where there are people going about their lives.
Try to read the person’s body language and facial expressions to figure out what might be going through their head. Do they look sad, stressed, happy, exhausted?
Give them a story (more practice for your imagination) and consider why they might be feeling the way they do. You might be closer to the truth than you think, or you might be a million miles off the mark; it doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that you are taking yourself out of your own body and mind and reminding yourself that other people have problems and views all of their own.
11. Travel To Places With Vastly Different Cultures
To broaden your perspective even more, you might consider visiting a country or place where the way of life is utterly different from where you live or grew up.
This will challenge your view of the world and help you to understand how someone might be different to you in so many ways.
The deeper the understanding of a person’s background, the more you will be able to empathize with them.
12. Ask How You Can Help
Remember, empathy is more than just understanding why a person feels a certain way or experiencing those feelings yourself. Empathy is also about helping someone in whatever way you can.
Empathy is an action as much as it is a thought or feeling.
So if you're considering how to develop empathy in a given situation, ask how you might be able to help. You can think about this or you can literally ask a person what you can do to be of assistance.
Then, if they want your help, give it. The act of helping is a powerful way to build that bridge of connection between two people. It makes them feel valued and it breaks down barriers to communication.
Sometimes, the act of helping someone might even come before you feel what they are feeling. The act itself might trigger those feelings in you.
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Steve Phillips-Waller is a passionate advocate of self-growth and discovery. He is the founder of A Conscious Rethink, a website dedicated to publishing helpful personal development articles full of actionable advice.