Empathy, a skill that is required for a great deal of standard human communication. Sometimes people will hear this word and roll their eyes because they think this is a reference to people who announce themselves as empaths. This is not the same thing. Being empathetic is something entirely different, and some people do struggle to understand what empathy truly is, and how it can benefit and build our relationships with others.
Empathy exists not only in humans, but in animals too. It has been shown through research that animals are able to feel empathy for one another.
Empathy is something that enables us to have healthy and understanding relationships, and a lack of empathy can often be a relationships’ death sentence, as we all desire to be understood and empathized with.
However, this is a skill that is not only important in romantic relationships but for friendships, family, and even the relationship between employer and employee.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is at its very core the awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people, and animals too in some cases. It is the pinnacle point of emotional intelligence. Linking oneself to others is imperative, since humans are at their very core, social animals, understanding others benefits our growth as a whole and allows us to understand what is going on around us and manifest deeper, truer connections with those around us.
Note: Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is to ‘feel for’ someone, whereas empathy is to ‘feel with’ someone, as if we were feeling their emotions ourselves.
So, what are the key aspects of empathy?
Most people will understand empathy as understanding others, sensing others feelings and perspectives and actively taking interest and listening to their concerns. However, it is a bit more than this. Understanding others is tuning into emotional cues, listening well, and paying close attention to non-verbal communication.
Understanding others is also sensitivity and understanding the perspectives of others, even if their perspective differs from your own. This also means an ability to help other people based upon their understanding of others needs and feelings.
These are all skills which can be developed, however, they can only be developed if the person wishes to do so. In many cases, some people may not wish to do so, for the sake of their own mental health. For those that are very empathetic, they may find it hard to divide the line between their own emotions and the emotions of others. In these cases, people may turn off their emotional antennae to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
This is something that is not uncommon in emotionally heavy jobs, such as carers for people who have dementia or Alzheimer’s. It is key to remember that being empathetic and understanding does not mean to sacrifice your own mental health for the sake of others.
Empathy means to support others. Life is no easy thing, and there are aspects to everyone’s lives that can be especially difficult to experience. Having someone beside you who is empathetic to what you are going through can be just what you need to get through an emotionally strenuous time.
For example, if someone were to lose a family member. Someone who is empathetic would talk with them and hear their feelings, converse with them over the topic, and really listen to how they feel. Listening in itself can be support, but listening is hearing, taking in the information given, as this information can be useful to supporting the person further. Listening is about really hearing, understanding body language, how the person is holding themselves, tone, and what they are saying. Taking information from these things can truly assist you in adequately supporting someone in their time of need.
In close relationships, such as in a romantic relationship, support is key. If one partner was struggling with making a decision between two jobs, an unsupportive partner may simply state their opinion, and not listen to the other person and how they feel about the situation, simply tackling the situation head on. An empathetic and supportive partner, would hear out their partner’s concerns and how they feel about both jobs, perhaps state what they would do, and make supportive statements such as ‘I understand why you would feel this way’, or ‘it is not an easy decision to make, but I know you will make the right choice’.
It is important to remember, that a great deal of support is listening, hearing, and understanding that others have different perspectives.
Caring for others
You might make the argument that support and understanding are caring, and you would not be wrong, however, caring for others goes beyond just support and understanding.
Caring for others is to be selfless and want for their happiness. 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 understand 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 emotions are acceptable and a very normal thing to experience.
If someone was to tell you not to do something that will make you happy, this is an example of someone not caring (unless what you want to do is dangerous, illegal, or may put you in a tight spot). However, if someone were to accept that you want to do this thing but give you advice on how you can make the most of it and prevent any problems from arising as a result, then this is caring.
The types of empathy
Caring is part of empathy because in a way it says ‘ 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.’
A large part of empathy in general is understanding that we are all simply on a journey, and that no two people share the same journey, but we can understand, support, and care for each other through our respective journeys. Never forcing our own opinions, perspective, or experiences onto others.
Empathy, like everything, comes in all shapes and sizes, and there are three primary types of empathy that many people will show or see every day/ week. These three are often used together in some situations.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to have a more complete and accurate knowledge about what is going on in another person’s mind, including how they feel. Cognitive empathy is a skill, as humans learn to understand and recognize each other’s emotional states as a way to process emotions and behavior.
Cognitive empathy is understanding emotions like a science, it is logical and literal. A surface level of empathy. In some people who only have cognitive empathy skills, this can come across to others as under-emotional, with insufficient feeling, and too much logical analysis. It can also feel unsympathetic to those who are distressed.
This type of empathy is also known as emotional contagion, and it is basically the process of catching someone else’s feelings so in a way you literally feel them too. 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.
Why is empathy important?
There is a very positive correlation between those who have emotional empathy and those who are willing to help others.
In addition to this type of empathy, one might also feel affective empathy, which involves the ability to understand a person’s emotions and respond appropriately. They may also feel somatic empathy, which means having a physical reaction in response to what someone else is experiencing. If you are the type of person who sees someone else who is embarrassed, you too may blush, or get a nervous tummy. This is somatic empathy.
Finally, compassionate empathy is understanding another person’s feelings and taking appropriate actions to help them. In this sense, you understand another person’s emotions, but you do not take them on as is with emotional empathy. It uses emotional intelligence to respond to a situation without feeling overwhelmed or compelled to try and fix anything.
Empathy does not mean that you should try to fix the problems of another person, this is, in most cases, the opposite of what is needed. In situations where empathy is required, it is often the case that the person simply requires support and understanding, rather than a magic wand. Compassionate empathy, as well as these others empathy types are all understanding and supportive, rather than a magic wand.
Empathy is important, not only because it helps us to understand the world around us and the surrounding people, but for other reasons too.
Empathy allows people to build social connections with others. By understanding what others are feeling and thinking, we can then respond appropriately in an array of social situations. Empathy is also something that assists in allowing us to build strong emotional connections with others, which benefits us in our relationships with those around us.
Being able to empathize with others also helps us to regulate our own emotions and understand ourselves better, too. Understanding empathy and being empathetic can also promote healthy helping behaviors, thus helping us to understand what kind of help people need in what situations. Some situations may simply require a shoulder to cry on, or someone to vent to. Unhealthy helping behaviors can be seen as trying to fix people’s problems rather than offer support to them so that they can get through problems on their own.
Helping and support are different things, remember.
Empathy is a large part in the foundation of healthy socialization and building strong connections with others. It is also useful in business, helping us communicate our ideas in a way that makes sense to others, and it can help us better understand others when they communicate with us. It is, at its base level, the building blocks of superior communication.
Finally, empathy is key in the survival of intimate relationships. No matter how much you and your partner love each other, if you cannot both empathize, the relationship will not last. Empathy is required for a relationship to function in a healthy manner. As we said, it is the building blocks for superior communication, which is required in intimate relationships.
How to be more empathetic
Some people may be unable to be empathetic. Some simply never learned the skill, others may have some empathetic ability but wish to build it for the sake of their relationships.
There are some people that cannot empathize 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 of these 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.
A majority of the time, we speak more than we listen. It can be so easy to get caught up explaining something, and we fail to stop and think about what the other person may be thinking or feeling. Empathetic people will listen first and then only speak once they have heard (and taken in) what the person has said. This is called active listening, you are actively listening to another person and taking in the information you are receiving from them.
For some people, this can be difficult, especially if you are the type of person whose mind races at a million miles per hour. But there are some things that you can put into practice to help build this skill.
First, commit your attention to the conversation, tablets, phones, and laptop away. Keep steady eye contact and watch their body as they speak for body language, which can help to understand their feelings.
Then, it also helps to let them speak, give them the time they need to speak. Let them finish their thoughts and do not interrupt them, there is a reason interruption is viewed as rude, it shows you were not listening in the first place.
It can help to summarize once the speaker has finished talking, reiterate it back to them, so that you know you have taken in the information correctly. Allow them to rant as well, if someone is having troubles, they can get emotionally flustered and stressed. Let them feel this way, give them your space to talk from their heart and share how they feel. Doing this often leads to them discovering their own solutions. It is more helpful than you know.
Ask relevant questions
Ask nonjudgmental questions to better understand the other person’s perspectives, thoughts and feelings. Most of us are naturally curious, and sometimes asking these questions can lead to new discoveries that one day we can apply to our own lives. Utilize this question, and the person will be grateful for it, as will you.
Ensure that your questions are relevant, though, and nonjudgmental. 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.
Express empathy by voicing how you’d feel in that same situation
Take a step into their shoes for a moment and consider how you might feel in this situation. If you have already experienced this situation even better, you can both share, and having experienced this before may help others work through it. But be sure not to make the conversation about yourself.
Say things such as;
“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 also 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 validating how the situation is not easy. This is both comforting, and validates your emotions, it can also give you more confidence to get through the situation as well.
Sadly, so many times people stay within ‘emotionally safe zones’. We often fear vulnerability because we fear others may see us as foolish, weak, or silly. However, being emotionally vulnerable helps us to connect with others, it reminds us and others that we are all human, and that we all have weaknesses, pains, and fears. We realize we are the same, and allow us to connect to each other.
In some ways, though some may see vulnerability as weakness, it is actually a strength.
As an example, in intimate relationships, the relationship will easily fail if one party refuses to be vulnerable, it creates a breeding ground for stress, tension, and other negative emotions that will soon see the relationship crumble.
In working environments, vulnerability helps employers and employees work better together, and solve issues faster.
Carefully listen to the person experiencing an issue, and think of a time when you may have been in a similar predicament, think back to how you felt during this time. Anxious? Apprehensive? Scared? Express this to the other person, and share what you learned.
As we are vulnerable, sharing our own insecurities and mistakes, we bond in our humanity, and this creates the foundation for a relationship. In situations where you do this, you will often find that the person will come to you more with any other issues, or to tell you of good things, thus building a stronger bond between the both of you.
Actions are just as good as practice to help you learn empathy. We all have our own assumptions about the world, but the truth is that the world around us is constantly growing. Taking actions to understand the world we live in better can help you to grow your empathic abilities. This means not just standing in someone else’s shoes, but taking a walk in them. You cannot understand the life of another unless you try to experience some of it, especially when it comes to biases in judgements that we have learned through nothing more than media, family members, and general assumptions.
Do things like experience different religions, take a trip to a mosque, synagogue, church, or another house of worship. If you have a friend who has a different religion to you, switch for a week or two, and get to understand each other a little better. This is not to try and convert you, but rather to help you both understand core parts of one another on a deeper level. You could visit a village in a developing country, or spend some time in a different neighborhood, or simply take a holiday and stay in a local area, rather than a tourist area, to really understand how the people live there.
You can start up a conversation with a homeless person, or speak to someone you might usually avoid. The world can surprise you, and doing new things, and trying new things that may shock you are simply a way to learn more about the world around us, this can only help us to improve it.
Also consider a persons’ life too. If a person is bothersome, or comes across mean. Think about why, get to their core. If you have a teenager, think about their life, do they have a lot of homework, do they get enough sleep, do they seem happy in school, might they be experiencing bullying?
Perhaps you have a partner who is not emotionally aware, may seem a bit judgmental or controlling, consider their upbringing, what are their parents like, how do they feel about their family, school life, and general past. Perhaps their parents had high expectations of them, and they fought to meet them so as to not be judged, perhaps they have a controlling parental figure, and they have grown up believing this is normal.
Looking into a persons’ life can help you to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Considering what you see and what the person may be going through outside their eyesight, or what they have experienced in the past can help you to understand others, and this is the first step in being empathetic.
Have an open mind
So many of us have grown closed-minded, this is often a result of a desire to be loved and accepted by one’s peers, which is often a response in later life due to unmet needs in childhood and younger years.
Closed mindedness can also be a result of a lack of diverse experiences, a fear of the unknown. The problem is that open-mindedness can often have a lot of cost associated with it, especially when it comes to major social situations, such as political debates and morality. Existing beliefs are often associated with lifestyle, social circle, work, and friends. Disrupting this can cause chaos and change, often pushing you out from the bubble you were in.
However, an open mind is a mind that is adaptable, and therefore can grow. Humanity as a whole requires growth, if it did not, we would not be where we are today.
You can see closed-minded people on the internet all the time, blocking others from speaking and simply refusing to hear the opinions of others. It is never a debate or discussion with a closed-minded person, it’s their way or the highway.
Similarly, closed-minded people will focus more on being understood than understanding others, simply open-minded people are curious and willing to learn and grow, like a tree, closed-minded people are a boulder, stuck in one place.
Becoming open-minded will help you to grow and gain knowledge. Open-mindedness can be beneficial not only to those around you, but also to yourself. Gaining knowledge means that instead of having a strict small social circle and beliefs carved in stone, you can better evolve and grow, and can even gain friendships from around the world.
This will allow you to be more empathetic to those around you, as your curiosity and understanding of situations will grow.
Try to put yourself in other people’s shoes
Sometimes we can’t physically put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and most of the time situations are a bit too hard to mirror to gain the empathetic understanding required. So, this is a great time to utilize that great imagination of yours. If you read books, or daydream, or even if you just imagine a scenario when you listen to a piece of music, you have more than enough imagination to be able to imagine yourself in the position of another person.
Experience more and learn about different cultures and people
Get out of your usual environment. Travel, especially to new places and cultures. It gives you a better appreciation of others. Travel is one of the most useful things you can do, and it is something that so many of us yearn to do in the modern world. 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. Thus getting rid of our biases, prejudices, and assumptions.
Some may believe climate change is a myth until they see it themselves. They may believe that they live in the best place on earth until they visit a new place. It is eye-opening and can not only give us insight into the world we live in, but help us better know that everyone is unique, and nothing is as black and white as we may see it.
Think about your biases
Everyone has biases, first we must accept that we have biases, and second we must work to overcome them. We must never paint everyone with the same brush and although biases often come from experiences, we must accept that our experiences do not cover the whole world, but instead just a small segment of it. A good example of this would be the reaction to certain religions/ nationalities/ cultures over actions by small groups of people. It is key to understand that a whole religion/ culture/ social group was boycotted for this, yet often tragic events are the result of a very small group.
We must realize that we can grow the habit of judging a book by its cover, and painting whole groups with the same brush, based on just a small population, or just one experience.
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 skill that everyone should have, it is beneficial to our relationships, with lovers, family, friends, work colleagues, and even strangers on the street. It is a skill we often learn as children, otherwise through experience.
In some ways, empathy is not very different from the saying “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
We all want to be empathized with, and thus if we all learn to empathize 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.
“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.”
Work on your empathic ability and see how the world around you becomes more beautiful, and colorful.