Do you ever find yourself lost for words when someone shares something important with you? Maybe you even find yourself scratching your head over other people’s feelings and thinking to yourself, “Why did they react like that?”
Friend, you might need a crash course in empathizing.
Empathy is a skill that helps us understand others and react sensitively. It eases communication, helps us handle tough interpersonal situations, and means we can have closer, healthier relationships with our friends, family, co-workers and partners.
This guide breaks down exactly what empathy is and gives you practical advice on how to be more empathetic. Before you know it, you’ll stop being that person who well-meaning but unhelpful phrases like:
“It’ll all be okay,”
“Just look on the bright side,”
Or even the ultimate non-advice: “Don’t worry about it.”.
Instead, you’ll become a glowing beacon of warmth and understanding, issuing out agony-aunt level support to your loved ones.
Read on to start your journey to a more empathetic and caring you.
What is empathy?
To understand what empathy is, we’re swotting up with a little lesson in etymology, aka word origin. 🤓
(Side note, isn’t it ironic that ‘etymology’ is a puzzle to pronounce?)
Empathy comes from the Greek word ‘pathos’, which translates to ‘feelings’. ‘Em’ means ‘in’ and so, taken together, empathy means ‘in feelings’.
The modern take?
Empathy is when someone else’s feels hit you right in your feels.
Empathy is about understanding and feeling the emotions of others, be it people, our furry pals, or even TV characters. When it comes to emotional intelligence, it’s the cherry on the cake.
This special ability to connect ourselves to others through emotion is what defines us. It drives our growth and creates deeper, truer connections with those around us. It’s been crucial to our survival, too, as humans are, at their very core, social creatures.
So, that’s empathy in a nutshell. But what does it look like IRL?
Most people think of empathy as understanding others, actively taking an interest, and listening to their concerns.
And sure, that’s all pretty great stuff.
But empathy is a bit more than this. It’s also about:
- tuning into emotional cues
- listening well
- paying close attention to body language
- being sensitive to different perspectives
- ability to help others even if they’re different from you
The good news is that it’s not a question of being born more empathetic. Long gone are the outdated theories of left-sided brains and right-sided brains, or that women are born naturally more empathetic. Research today shows that empathy is a skill that anyone can work on.
Reader, are you thinking what we’re thinking? If empathy can be learned, why do some people seem to prefer ignorance?
… Folks, here’s a chance to use our empathy skills to understand why.
One reason people avoid empathy is that emotional intelligence can be pretty ouch-ey, especially when dealing with hard emotions. So for the sake of their mental health, some people prefer to not even go there.
Some people are naturally high in empathy and find it hard to distinguish between their own emotions and the emotions of others. Understandably, they turn off their emotional antennae to avoid becoming overwhelmed. This is particularly common in emotionally heavy jobs, such as carers for people who have dementia or Alzheimer’s.
If any of the above resonates with you, it is key to remember that being empathetic and understanding isn’t about sacrificing your mental health for the sake of others. The adage “you can’t pour from an empty cup” applies – you have to take care of yourself before you can care for others. (And before you ask, yes, we do have a helpful guide for taking care of your mental health!).
Empathy means to support others. Life is no easy thing, and we all have our struggles. Having a friend to lend a supportive ear can make all the difference in tough times.
The first step in supporting someone is to listen. Listening is about deeply hearing someone; understanding their body language, how they are holding themselves, their tone, and what they are saying. Not only are you collecting information, but you’re also taking their emotional temperature so that you know how to best support them.
What does that look like?
Let’s take a romantic relationship as an example. If one partner was struggling with choosing between two jobs, an unsupportive* partner might jump in to give their opinion. Rather than listening to the other person and how they feel about the situation, they’d rush ahead to simply tackle the situation head-on and find a solution.
*(If you’re the bulldozing type – don’t worry! This article will help you figure out how to be a more supportive bae 💖).
An empathetic and supportive partner would focus on understanding their partner’s concerns and how they feel about both jobs. Rather than saying what they think the other person should do, they might reframe it as what they themselves would do. Importantly, they’d prioritise saying supportive things over the chance to voice their own opinion, for example:
“I understand why you would feel this way”
“It is not an easy decision to make, but I know you will make the right choice”
“I’m in your corner no matter what you choose to do”
“Would it help if we talked more about what’s worrying you?”
It is important to remember, that a great deal of support is listening, hearing, and understanding that others have different perspectives
Caring for others
Caring for others goes beyond just support and understanding. It’s when you genuinely want happiness for them and you value their happiness as a top priority in life.
If, for example, your best friend wanted to move abroad for a year to experience a new way of life, caring for them is to see that this is what they want and what will make them happy, even though you will not see them for a long time.
Caring is about understanding the happiness of others, and their other emotions too. To care means to know that no one is perfect and that we all only have a short time on this planet to discover what truly fulfils us. No two people share the same journey, but we can understand, support, and care for each other through our respective journeys.
It’s about saying, ‘I understand that you are human, you experience emotions, and you are on your own journey. Like me, you want understanding, love, and happiness in your life.’
The types of empathy
In his book ‘Emotional Intelligence’, Daniel Goldman identified three types of empathy – with compassionate empathy usually the most desirable. Certain types of empathy are more suitable for certain situations, and some people find it easier to express one type of empathy over another.
Cognitive empathy is often described as “simply knowing what someone feels and what they might be thinking, sometimes called perspective-taking”. By imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes, you can infer and understand how they might be feeling. However, having only cognitive empathy keeps you emotionally distanced from people, because you don’t necessarily share their feelings – this is where emotional empathy comes in.
Emotional empathy is when “you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious”. It extends to physical feelings too, like wincing when someone hurts themself. Perhaps your friend is upset or crying, and you start to feel this way too. Emotional empathy can be feeling the same emotion as another person, feeling your own distress in a response to their pain, and feeling compassion for the other person.
Compassionate empathy is when “you not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them but are spontaneously moved to help if needed”. It balances the best of cognitive and emotional empathy to support people without being overwhelmed with feelings or compelled to try and fix anything.
Why is empathy important?
Empathy might be a selfless skill, but it’s packed with self-interested benefits. We can personally benefit from being empathetic.
Almost like the universe is giving us a little bonus. 🎁 ☺️
Empathy helps us to:
- build stronger social connections with our friends, family, partners and co-workers
- create meaningful emotional connections
- understand and regulate our own emotions
- promote healthy ‘helping’ behaviours* that benefit our loved ones
- lay the foundation for healthy socialization in children
- communicate our ideas better
Good empathy skills are the building blocks of social connection, healthier and happy relationships, and successful communication.
Now, who wouldn’t want that?
Is everyone capable of empathy?
Empathy is more challenging for some than others.
Some simply never learn the skills, especially if empathy was rarely expressed during their childhood.
Other people cannot empathise due to mental health disorders. People who have narcissistic personality disorder often lack empathy as a result. Similarly, as many would guess, psychopathy often also causes an inability to be empathetic. Both disorders are typically linked to early childhood trauma, either emotional or physical. These traumas can prevent the brain from understanding what empathy is as it develops.
In cases like this, empathy can still be built with the help of a professional in the mental health field.
How to be more empathetic
We’ve established that it’s nice to be nice – but how do we get better at it? Empathy isn’t a quality that you either possess or don’t. It’s a skill, made to be exercised and improved. It isn’t a singular thing either and, more often than not, empathy is in the act of doing.
So without further ado, here is a comprehensive guide of things you can start doing today to be more empathetic.
Hands up, who is guilty of speaking more than listening?
Let’s be honest, most of us are, at some point or another. We get caught up or overexcited, and before we know it, we’re brain dumping on someone without stopping to consider how another person is thinking or feeling.
There’s a better way to have conversations and it’s called active listening. On the surface, it’s simple. Listen first and only speak once you’ve heard (and taken in) what the other person says.
In reality, active listening is easier said than done. Especially if you are the type of person whose mind races at a million miles an hour (in other words, a normal person). But there are some things that you can put into practice to help build this skill.
Here are a few pointers:
- Commit to the conversation and put away the devices (or anything else that might distract you)
- Make eye contact and take in their body language while they speak to understand how they feel
- Give them space to talk and finish their thoughts without interruption
- Rephase what they said, repeating it back to them to check you understood
You might just be pleasantly surprised by how much someone opens up to you when you give them your entire presence.
If you don’t know how someone else feels – ask!
Use gentle, open-ended questions to better understand the other person’s perspectives, thoughts and feelings.
Ensure that your questions are relevant, though, and non-judgmental. A part of this is to understand the person’s boundaries. By asking questions, you are informing the person that they have your undivided attention and that you are there for them, supporting them.
Here are some supportive questions you could try:
“How are you feeling about all this?”
“Do you want to tell me more about X?”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Was there anything else that you wanted to share?”
“What I’m hearing is that you feel ____, is that right?”
And remember, you don’t have to sound like a therapist when you ask these questions. They’re just a template. You can talk naturally – say it like you normally would. If a simple ‘babe, sit down and tell me all about it,’ is more your style, then say it like it is.
Voicing how you’d feel in that same situation
You don’t need VR to put yourself in someone else’s position. Just fire up your internal imagination hardware and picture it for a moment. How would you feel in their situation?
Once you know the answer, sharing how you’d feel in the same situation is a great way to bond. It’s about being mutually vulnerable and showing your human side.
If you have already experienced this situation, even better – you can both share, and maybe you even have some advice. But be sure not to make the conversation about yourself.
To guide the spotlight back onto them, you can say:
“That must feel absolutely awful.”
“I am so sorry this happened to you.”
“I would feel the same way if this happened to me.”
“I have been through something similar, so while I do not know exactly how you feel, I know that it is not easy. You are so strong for getting through this.”
Be sure to voice how you would feel and acknowledge the other person’s feelings at the same time. In this sense, you are walking in their shoes for a moment. In times of strife, nothing feels better than someone telling you that they think you are strong and acknowledging that the situation is not easy. This is both comforting and validates your emotions.
It’s time to take a deep breath and step outside your emotional safety zone. The next level of empathy requires you to be vulnerable by sharing your *gulp* feelings.
It’s okay. Most of us are a lil’ scared of being vulnerable. We worry whether people will see us as weak, silly, or crazy. We prefer to clam up, laugh it off, or tell some heavily doctored version of the truth; one that hides our scariest, innermost feelings.
But do you know what might be on the other side of your barriers?
Acceptance, understanding, and human connection.
When you share your feelings and connect with others, it’s a reminder that we are all human, and that we all have weaknesses, pains, and fears.
In close relationships, mutual vulnerability is a strength. Its absence is a breeding ground for stress, tension, and all kinds of unwelcomed feels that will soon see the relationship crumble.
One area where vulnerability is likely lacking in your life is in your professional relationships. Society has counterintuitively built up the myth that being vulnerable is unprofessional. But vulnerability helps employers and employees work better together and solve issues faster.
Sure, you might not want to spill your darkest secrets at the next board meeting. But your professional self doesn’t have to be a robot.
Wondering how that’s done? Here’s an example of how to be emotionally vulnerable without going overboard:
1. Carefully listen to the person experiencing an issue
2. Think of a time when you were in a similar situation – how did you feel?
3. Express this to the other person and share what you learned
When we are vulnerable, sharing our insecurities and mistakes, we bond in our humanity, creating the foundation for a relationship. When you do this, you’ll find that the person will come to you with other issues or even to tell you about good things. A stronger bond grows between you.
Put yourself in other people’s shoes
You don’t have to be a mind-reader to understand why other people think or feel the way they do.
You just need a little bit of time and imagination.
Let’s say there’s a particularly bothersome person in your life. They seem mean, grumpy, or judgemental – and you dislike them for it. A great exercise in empathy is to take a sympathetic view of that person. Imagine all the reasons they might behave that way. What hardships might they face? What has happened in their life?
Looking into a person’s life can help you better understand their thoughts, feelings, and actions. This doesn’t mean that you know the objective truth. But, rather, it’s a way to open yourself up to understanding more about them.
Get out into the world
Don’t just put yourself in someone else’s shoes – take a walk in them.
No matter how good your imagination is, you can’t fully understand someone else’s life just by picturing it. That’s called making assumptions, and those assumptions are heavily coloured by our own lives and the biases we learn along the way.
If there’s someone specific that you want to understand better, then take the time to experience their life.
But perhaps you want to expand your empathy in the general sense. In which case, you could try any of the following:
- Get involved in different or diverse communities
- Experience different religions by visiting a mosque, synagogue, church, or another house of worship different from your own
- Spend time in another neighborhood or country and get to know how people live
- Start conversations with people who have very different lifestyles to you or even people who you usually avoid
The world can surprise you. Doing new things outside your comfort zone is a fast track to understanding more about other people’s perspectives. It is not just something exciting to do, but it can educate us about the world in which we live and help to teach us about other people and cultures. Finally shedding that old exoskeleton of biases, prejudices, and assumptions that keep us guarded against the world.
Have an open mind
If humans were meant to be close-minded, we’d still be living in caves and rubbing flint together.
Think about it. Every development, discovery, and tradition we have today was once brand new.
Someone had to be the first person to climb up on a horse, take a bath, or put sea salt in caramel. It probably looked weird to the lookers-on. But without people who were willing to get a little creative and push out their comfort zone, humanity wouldn’t have gotten far at all.
Still, some of us are more open to new ideas than others.
Close-mindedness can be a deep-rooted fear of rejection. People want to be accepted and safe – they want to be normal. It can also stem from a lack of diverse experiences, a fear of the unknown. Existing beliefs are often associated with lifestyle, social circle, work, and friends. Disrupting this can cause chaos and change.
It pushes you out of that cozy, safe bubble. It feels a little scary. Wondering whether that might be you?
Here are some signs of a close-minded person:
- Refusing to hear or validate other people’s opinions
- Intolerance to being questioned or asked to explain their beliefs
- Reluctance to try new things; foods, places, routines or hobbies
- Easily stressed out by change or new situations
- Avoidance of people or activities that don’t fit with their preferences
- Lack of curiosity about others or new topics
- Tendency to state their opinion instead of asking questions
- Fear (and inability to accept the possibility) of being wrong
- Unable to be humble or laugh at themselves
Open-minded people are curious and willing to learn and grow, like a tree, closed-minded people are a boulder, stuck in one place.
When you open your mind, the world is your oyster.
Before you interrupt to tell us that oysters are slimy and gross (valid point) – consider that there just might be a beautiful pearl inside.
You’ll grow and gain knowledge. You’ll get a better understanding of what you like (and don’t like), by experiencing more things. You’ll be braver and ultimately live a richer life. Other people will have the chance to share more with you and to feel understood. They’ll get the chance to know you. You might even make some friends along the way.
Yay, friends. 🤗
This will allow you to be more empathetic to those around you, as your curiosity and understanding of situations will grow.
Think about your biases
We’ve got some bad news for you.
You’re biased. 😬
Sorry, not sorry! But if it’s any consolation; it’s not you – it’s your brain.
It’s designed to form associations, recognise patterns, and ultimately, tries to get away with doing less work in understanding the world. It’s a little lazy from time to time.
Let’s say you eat some strawberry ice cream and immediately feel sick. Next time you see strawberry ice cream, you get a flashback. Your stomach curdles, your mouth dries up, and you decide to get the chocolate flavour instead.
There are no facts to say the strawberry ice cream caused your nausea the first time or that it’ll do it again. But your brain has created an association – a shortcut, you could say – to avoid feeling sick again.
Before you know it, you’re missing out on a delicious flavour of ice cream for no good reason.
Sadly, our brains do the same with people. One bad event, behaviour or experience can cause us to tar a whole group of people with the same brush. Sometimes subconsciously. It’s a natural protective behaviour, but that doesn’t mean our beliefs are true, fair, or ethical.
We have to recognise our biased shortcomings and work to overcome them.
Biases are counterproductive to growth and empathy. Talking to those of whom you might usually have biases against can help you to grow past this, hear their stories, learn about them and their lives, and you may find that your biases were unequivocally wrong.
Empathy is a super skill that will enhance your life.
It makes for better relationships; with lovers, family, friends, work colleagues, and even strangers on the street. It makes our lives more beautiful and colourful; we can continue to enrich our view of the world with every new experience.
We all want to be empathised with, and if we all learn to empathise with one another, no one’s needs will go unmet. If the world had more empathy in it, a great deal of the problems that plague the world today would no longer exist.
And if nothing else, consider this…
“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticise him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.”
This article is full of tips you can return to any time to work on your empathy skills. But while you’re busy improving your relationship with the world, don’t forget to look out for yourself too – you might like to check out our complete guide to self-care, or even treat yourself to a digital detox.
Have fun making the world a better place! 👋