The capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.
Being able to practice empathy is one of the most important skills you can learn. In a world that spends so much time picking at flaws and igniting fear and anger in people, empathy can be a balm to that fear and anger. It can help you, and others, lead a more fulfilling and healthier life. Empathy means you have to put yourself in their shoes and be aware of and sensitive to their feelings to help them.
Connecting with Others through Empathy
Listening is one of the most effective ways you can demonstrate empathy to other people. When you are practicing active listening, you are listening with purpose. You aren’t fiddling about on your phone, or thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner tonight, you’re really taking in what the other person is saying.
- If you’re listening to someone and you get distracted by thinking about dinner or whatever it is you want to say next in the conversation, bring yourself back to the present by saying “I was just thinking about ___(last thing you remember them saying)__ and I was wondering if you could repeat what you just said so that I don’t miss anything.”
- Look the speaker in the eye (don’t stare, but try to maintain eye contact), and sit facing the person. Don’t let your gaze drift all over the place, because it will look as though you aren’t paying attention and that you don’t care what this person has to say. (Eye contact is culturally based. Some people feel it’s rude and many autistic people feel literally threatened by it. If you aren’t sure, ask what they would prefer.)
- Active listening requires three things. First, paraphrase what the person said to show that you understood the content. This is a general listening skill as well. Second, reflect back your emotional reaction. Reflecting back your emotions is a key part of empathy because it helps the person better understand and regulate their own emotions. This is a core reason why we require empathy from others. Their reactions help us regulate our own responses and make sense of it in the world. Third, indicate how your response makes you want to behave. Expressing your behavior is another key element, because again you are demonstrating that you understand their emotional state and helping them figure out a behavior to move forward with.
This is an important step when practicing empathy and when practicing mindfulness. It can be really hard to withhold immediate judgment, especially when first meeting or interacting with someone. And yet, this is a crucial step towards being empathetic.
- Try to gain a deeper understanding of someone else’s perspective without immediately saying that it is bad or good. In this way you’re able to get to a deeper level of understanding. This does not necessarily mean that the other person is right or good, but taking the time to gain a deeper perspective will help you in developing empathy towards them.
- Of course, this is not to say that if someone is acting a reprehensible manner (saying racist or sexist things or behaving like a bully) that you shouldn’t intervene or say something. Speaking up is an act of courage and compassion.
- Making snap judgments about others is a fundamental aspect of being human. We developed this ability from our ancestors in order to read potentially dangerous people and situations. However, this innate mechanism can be hard to override.
- The next time you find yourself making a snap judgment about another person, try to override this judgement by: 1) Looking deeper at the person for ways you can empathize with a situation the person is going through. 2) Noting a few things this person probably has in common with you (when we can uncover universal commonalities we are less likely to judge others). 3) Asking the person questions, so you can learn more about their unique story.
Just listening to someone isn’t going to build a bridge between the two of you. Opening up emotionally is an incredibly difficult and brave thing to do but it will deepen the connection with another person.
- Empathy is a two-way street. It’s about sharing vulnerabilities and an emotional connection. To truly practice empathy you have to share your own inner landscape with someone else as they reciprocate
- This doesn’t mean you have to spill your life story to every person that you meet. You get to decide who you’re going to share yourself with, but, to practice empathy, you have to be open to the possibility and the opportunity of opening up, especially with the people you least expect.
- Once you find an individual with whom you’d like to be more open, try the following: rather than leaning on thoughts or opinions in conversation, attempt to express your feelings about a given topic. Try to start your sentences with “I”, or in the first person. For example, “I am very glad we got to hang out today.” Finally, refrain from answering a question with “I don’t know” especially if it is a personal question. People often respond in this way to prevent from going deeper with another person. Try to come up with an answer that truly expresses how you feel.
Offer physical affection
Now, you can’t do this for everyone and, obviously, you should ask before you give someone physical affection to make sure that it’s okay (even if you’ve known them for awhile). Showing physical affection, however, can boost oxytocin levels and make both of you feel better.
- If you know the person well, give them a hug, or put an arm around their shoulders, or a hand on their arm. Not only does this show that your attention is focused on them, but it creates a connection between the two of you.
- Oxytocin has been known to help people better interpret other people’s emotions, so a consensual hug can build up your emotional intelligence as well as the emotional intelligence of the person with whom you’re empathizing.
Focus your attention outwards
Pay attention to your surroundings and to the feelings, expressions, and actions of the people around you. Be mindful about how others you interact with might be feeling.
- Notice your surroundings, really notice them. Pay attention to sounds, smells, sights and register them consciously. People tend to register things unconsciously. For example, think how many times you’ve walked or driven somewhere and have no memory whatsoever of getting from A to B. Take in your surroundings mindfully.
- Research has shown that practicing mindfulness about your surroundings and the people around you makes you more likely to extend empathy towards them and to help when someone needs it.
This shows that you see what someone is going through and you want to make life easier for them. Offering help is a great act of empathy, because it shows that you’re willing to take time out of your day to do something for someone else without asking anything in return.
- Offering help can be as simple as holding the door for a person who’s entering the same building as you, or buying a coffee for the person behind you in line. It can be as big as helping your grandfather set up his computer and talking him through how it works. Or, it can be offering to take care of your sister’s kids for the weekend so she can take a break.
- Even just offering the opportunity to help, can be an empathetic gesture. Tell a friend that if they need anything they can ask, opening up the way for providing help and support.
Building Up Your Empathy
Practice curiosity about strangers
Part of showing empathy is being interested in other people, especially people that you know nothing about and who are outside of your social circle. These can be the random people you meet on the bus, or who you’re standing in line for coffee with.
- This sort of curiosity moves beyond simply talking about the weather – although that is always a great place to start. You want to understand a little of another person’s world, especially a person that you might not normally talk to. It will also require opening up about yourself, because you can’t have this type of conversation without giving of yourself, too.
- Having these types of conversations is also a great time to test your empathy, because some people don’t want to talk, so you can learn to pick out these behaviors and leave these people alone. Check for things like whether they reading a book, wearing headphones, facing away from everyone and not making eye contact.
- If a person makes eye contact with you, smile at the person encouragingly. Then, try to find something about their surroundings or personal characteristics in which you can use as an opening to engage in a conversation. Some examples may include: commenting on a book the person is reading or asking the person for help or an explanation about something in your environment. Continue to smile encouragingly and use the other person’s name sporadically in conversation.
- Also, always make sure that you care for yourself in these situations. If you feel threatened or uncomfortable by the person you’re talking to, end the conversation and get away. Trust your instincts.
Sometimes, people are only motivated to reach out and help others after they themselves have been in need. If you want to develop empathy for others, volunteer now. Volunteering promotes understanding of the needs of the community and allows you to connect with people you may not otherwise meet in your everyday life. Dedicating a portion of your time to those in need also has amazing mental health benefits.
- Do some research regarding your local community to determine which populations may be in need. You can volunteer with your local Habitat for Humanity, at a homeless shelter, the Red Cross, or even offer to tutor school children.
Challenge your own prejudice
It’s hard sometimes to remember that just because you firmly believe in something doesn’t mean that it’s right. Take time to analyze your own prejudices. Learning to see individual people rather than “welfare moms” or “terrorists” or “gangsters” will help you practice your empathy.
- Search for things that you share in common with someone who you originally see as one specific label and use that commonality to forge a connection with that person.
- Also, challenge your biases and assumptions. Ask yourself why you think that all poor people are lazy, or all people with mental health issues are dangerous, or that all followers of a certain religion are terrorists. A lot of assumptions and prejudices are bases on erroneous information that has become widespread. Educate yourself and listen to the groups that are affected by this misinformation.
Use your imagination
A good imagination is one of the cornerstones of showing empathy towards something. You’re not going to be able to experience every single thing that can happen to a person, but you can use your imagination to give you an inkling of how it might feel and use that understanding to empathize with them.
- Actively imagining what someone else might be suffering can help you empathize with them. So, instead of deciding that the old man on the street begging for money is automatically going to use what he gets on booze, try imagining what it would be like to live on the streets, on the mercy of unmerciful people, in a system that punishes people like veterans, the mentally ill, and the destitute.
- Research has found that people who read fiction tend to be better at understanding emotions, behaviors, and intentions. So read widely and try to branch out into the works of marginalized people.
Practice experiential empathy
This means getting a direct experience of another person’s life, the “walk a mile in another person’s shoes” adage. The writer, George Orwell, lived on the streets of London to discover what it was like for those on the margins of society. Orwell made friends, changed his view on the destitute (deciding they were not “drunken scoundrels”), and changed his views on inequality.
- You don’t have to go quite that far, but consider taking on all the things that your mother does in a day for an entire week. You’ll discover how difficult it is to manage both the home and work, and you’ll have a better appreciation for how much work she has to do. You may even decide to pitch in a bit more.
- Likewise, if you’re religious (or atheist) consider attending the service of another faith, not to ridicule or to feel superior to, but to learn what it is like for them.
Treat people as being important
Start treating people as if they have as much importance as you do. Recognize that you aren’t the only one living in this world and that you aren’t some superior being.
- Take each person as they come. Don’t lump them into stereotypical groups with erroneous one-size-fits-all labels. Each person is an individual and comes with a set of flaws and strengths.
Practice loving-kindness meditation
Meditating is a great way to help yourself deal with things like depression and anxiety and just the stresses of day to day existence. Practicing loving-kindness meditation, however, can help make you more empathetic.
- Start by doing regular meditation. Sit somewhere comfortable and focus on your breathing. When thoughts start to intrude, accept them and release them from your mind. Visualize yourself as an object of loving kindness. Don’t start thinking about all your flaws and don’t start thinking about all your strengths either. Simply see yourself as worthy of love.
- Once you’ve got the loving kindness to yourself down, start practicing it for 4 different types of people: someone you respect, like a teacher; a dearly beloved person, like a family member or friend; a neutral person, someone at a store, someone you saw outside that day; and a hostile person, someone with whom you are in conflict.
- To keep you on track it can be helpful to repeat a mantra to yourself, like “loving-kindness” to remind you when you get off track and to help keep you focused on holding the feelings of loving kindness, even towards the hostile person.