Empathy refers to the capacity to comprehend and other people’s feelings and emotions. It is a vital component of building and maintaining healthy relationships, both personally and professionally.
Empathy is also a component of emotional intelligence, requiring us to use both our heads and our hearts. We need to connect emotionally, so we can feel what the other person feels, and to also use our minds, so we can better understand why the other person might feel a certain way and how we might be of the best help to them.
Those who don’t show empathy are often seen as unfeeling and self-centered, and as a result they frequently shy away from genuine human connections. Sociopaths and narcissists are generally deficient in empathy.
On the other end of the spectrum, people who exhibit empathy are generally viewed as caring and accepting of others.
Then there are many people who fall into the middle of the continuum.
What factors contribute to our ability to empathize?
First of all, there may be a genetic component as to why some people seem more empathetic than others.
Also, there is almost certainly a large environmental component. We learn a lot from the people who raised us and with whom we spent a lot of time early in our lives.
Did our parents and other caregivers pay close attention to our feelings and acknowledge our emotions? Did they offer words of comfort and acts of service? Or were they self-absorbed or otherwise disinclined to show us compassion? Was perfection demanded of us?
Were we told that “crying is for weak people”, “you’re not sad, you’re angry”, “cheer up, don’t be sad”, or other things that discouraged certain feelings or confused us as to our truth?
Did our mother frequently disparage herself for carrying some extra weight or for her penchant for desserts? Did our father retreat into stony silence or binge-drink rather than express his fear or disappointments?
It’s hard to develop empathy if we haven’t had good role models of compassion and self-compassion.
True, some children manage, like little sprigs of grass growing through cracks in concrete, to develop empathy all the same, but frequently we are stunted in this capacity without early-life encouragement and demonstrations of empathy by others.
However, we humans are resilient beings. The fact is that according to research, 98% of people do have the ability to empathize. All the same, we don’t always exercise our full empathetic abilities. Fortunately there are things we can do to strengthen our empathy skills, such as the following:
- Take on a new challenge. Try something that gets you out of your comfort zone. The experience of learning something new, be it a second language, a skill connected to your profession, or a sport, will teach you humility. Daring to do things imperfectly (which is the essence of being a beginner) will humble you – and humility is a vital component of empathy.
- Be curious about people. Everyone has something to teach us, if we adopt a spirit of curiosity. What can you learn from that cranky colleague? What can that unruly child next door teach you? What wisdom can your mother-in-law impart? In fact, sometimes the people we initially find most objectionable can shine a line on parts within us which we haven’t recognized or made peace with.
- Ask for feedback. Get a reality check from your friends, family, and colleagues about your interpersonal skills. Listen to constructive criticism, follow advice that seems helpful, and follow up with these people down the line, to see if you’re on the right track.
- Engage your emotions as well as your intellect. Read fiction and non-fiction that delve into feelings and relationships. Often doing so can be educational and also open up your soul in a way that logic cannot.
- Walk in others’ shoes. Talk to others about what it is like to live a day in their life, both in their past and in their present circumstances. Learn about their current issues and concerns. Ask about their perception of an experience you shared.
- Be aware of your biases. All of us have conscious and unconscious biases that can hinder our capacity to empathize. What are your assumptions about people of different races, ages, socioeconomic groups, and gender? Open your mind to letting go of these biases. Allow yourself to learn the truth.
- Ask thought-provoking as well as simple questions. Learn what works best in each individual case. You may find that some people respond best to seemingly innocuous inquiries, such as “how are you today?” Other people may need some prodding in order to start talking. Either way, allowing someone to voice their feelings can be tremendously beneficial for them – and also for you. You get the chance to enter into their world. You get to see things through their lens. What a relief, to temporarily step outside your own limited view of reality.
- Resist the urge to rush in and fix things. You don’t always need to come up with a solution. Your mere presence and wish to understand the other person shows them respect and care.
- Be honest. Sometimes we hold back from talking with people because we fear that we won’t know what to do with information they give us. Don’t let this concern stop you from reaching out. It’s okay not to know how to respond. Simply tell the truth. For instance, you can say, “I can’t imagine what you must be feeling right now.” “I’m at a loss for words.” “I’m so sorry you have to go through this.” “Thank you for sharing this with me.” “I’m here for you.”
- Don’t count on the person to tell you how you could help them. They may know exactly what they need and won’t be shy about telling you. On the other hand, they may feel overwhelmed and haven’t the slightest idea what they need help with. Maybe they do, but best not to hold your breath. Just think of something simple and do it. Call or email them to see how they’re doing. Send a card or flowers. Pick up some groceries for them.
- Explore new environments. Check out new places and cultures. It gives you a better appreciation for different ways of life and people’s personal choices and values. Or, if traveling isn’t in the cards for you right now, no worries. Reading a book or watching a movie from a different culture and time period than your own can help you to broaden your perspective.
- Practice self-compassion. Learn to acknowledge and accept all parts of yourself, without judgment. This will increase your capacity for compassion towards other people. Meditation can help. Simply sit quietly, preferably with your eyes closed, and focus on your breath. Follow your inhalations and exhalations, and when thoughts come into your mind, let them go and return to your breath. In doing so, you will have plenty of opportunities to practice self-compassion and tolerance of your own “monkey mind”. You can then carry this enhanced knowledge into your relationships with others.
You have to want to build empathy. This process is not for the faint of heart. Given the very nature of empathy, you will feel more deeply, both the emotions of other people and your own. Not everyone wants to take this on. It can hurt. No doubt about it. It’s not convenient nor on our time table. Some people consider the process too daunting, unimportant, or believe themselves to be too “far gone” to develop empathy. However, for most of us empathy lies at the very core of our being. Perhaps it’s been discouraged or belittled. Perhaps it’s rusty from lack of use. But it’s there, ready to be nurtured into vibrant life, as soon as we dare to commit to opening up our hearts. The benefits vastly outweigh the risks.