You might think empathy is a personality trait—there are people who seem to be empathetic by design. And sure, empathy comes more naturally to some of us. People called empaths have a strong ability to relate to other people’s feelings—at times, they almost feel too much empathy.
But empathy is also a skill. With practice, you can build your empathy muscle and improve your connections with others. “Developing empathy is a skill set that can be honed and developed,” said Alyssa Bowman, a family therapist at Banner Health Clinic in Windsor, CO.
To start, you need to know what empathy is, and what makes it different from pity and sympathy. “Empathy is recognizing and connecting with another emotionally,” Bowman said. “Empathy says, ‘My heart hurts with you because I know what it’s like to feel pain.’”
With sympathy, you take a step back. You relate to someone else’s pain from a distance. “Sympathy says, ‘I’m so sorry about the pain you find yourself in and I wish you were not in that pain,’ ” Bowman said.
With pity, you take another step back. You acknowledge that someone else is suffering. You relate to that person’s pain with your thoughts rather than your feelings.
Being more empathetic takes effort
It is human nature to flee pain. Being empathetic means engaging in someone else’s pain rather than detaching from it. “Being able to recognize the discomfort and to lean into it is a conscious choice and a challenge that a person can work towards,” Bowman said.
To be more empathetic, put yourself in the perspective of the person you want to empathize with. You know them, and you know the emotion they are experiencing. So, you can imagine how they feel.
“It’s about communicating that you are with them and they are not alone,” Bowman said. Don’t try to change the person or their emotion, just connect with them.
Here’s what to do to build empathy
Here are four ways Bowman says you can increase your empathy:
- Listen without judgment.
- Ask questions that help you understand the other person’s viewpoint.
- Pay attention to what the other person is communicating with their body language and tone of voice.
- Think of times you’ve felt the same emotion and think of the viewpoint of the other person in the context of that emotion.
Bowman shared a concrete example: A small child is crying because they want a cookie. You may think it’s silly for the child to be crying. But instead of judging, you decide to use an empathetic response. You remember times you’ve wanted something you couldn’t have and how sad it felt to want that thing. You then respond to the child from a place of understanding. Instead of calling them silly for wanting the cookie, you talk about the sad feelings. The child knows they are not alone in the experience of wanting something they can’t have.
“It’s important to recognize that empathy doesn’t always change the outcome—the child still doesn’t get the cookie—but the child knows that they are heard and not alone in their experience,” Bowman said.
You can also empathize without agreeing
Empathy means seeing a situation from another person’s perspective. However, it doesn’t always mean you agree with that perspective. Someone could hold a drastically different viewpoint than you do. You can listen to their thoughts, ask questions so you understand better, recognize the place they are coming from, and still have differences in viewpoints.
You can ask for empathy when you need it from others
With honest, straightforward communication you can elicit an empathetic response from the people around you. While you can’t always predict how someone will respond, you can do your best to ask for what you need. You can share the emotion you are feeling and the response you think would help you.
“I’ve found communicating your needs directly is usually the best approach because sometimes it is difficult for the other person to know how to walk alongside the person in pain,” Bowman said.
Here’s an example. You could say, “The death of my mother breaks my heart, and the grief is so difficult. What I really need is for you to sit with me and listen for 30 minutes to the stories I want to share about her.”
Working toward a more empathetic attitude can change your life and the lives of your loved ones. Learn more about how you can build your emotional IQ and show deeper support to your friends and family as you explore other related articles, such as:
- Has COVID-19 Created Conflict in Your Relationship?
- Coronavirus: Managing Your Mental Health
- Caring for Your Brain During Stressful Times