Empathy can be a tough cookie to crack, especially these days. The American experience is fractured into seemingly unbridgeable factions, it’s easier to deem others “crazy” than try to understand them, and anonymous-ish online interactions make us forget there’s a person on the other side of the keyboard.
But empathetic skills are crucial and their benefits are unparalleled. So why, exactly, is empathy important?
First, empathy helps you understand what why people around you do the things they do or believe what they believe. Others’ actions, no matter how wacky, start to make sense when viewed with empathy (“Well, duh, if that happened to me I’d probably act like that, too.”) And this understanding will make you less judge-y and defensive, which in turn helps you avoid unnecessary stress.
Next, empathy allows you to inspire others by tapping into what they truly value and desire, which is a way healthier approach than threats or manipulation.
But fundamentally, empathy lets you read minds! OK, so it’s not exactly telepathy, but it’s the next best thing. You can discern what a person is feeling and thinking by listening closely to their words and paying attention to their facial expression, tone of voice, body language, and—most importantly—their eyes.
But wait, there’s more! Indeed, there are two types of empathy. The first type is affective empathy, which is feeling another person’s emotions. Many of us well up when we see someone else cry, or feel on edge when someone close to us is stressed. My own research finds that terminally ill patients and their closest family member rise and fall together—when one is feeling strong or feeling worried, the other usually is as well.
The second type of empathy is cognitive empathy, which is also called perspective taking or Theory of Mind. Cognitive empathy is knowing what another person might think, intend, believe, or want, and is a skill necessary in everything from negotiating a salary to planning a surprise party to motivating staff.
Even if feeling someone else’s pain, awkwardness, or disappointment might seem like a distressing burden, the rewards far outweigh the costs. Fundamentally, empathy is connection with others, which is something we all need at least a little of to be happy and healthy (well, with the possible exception of psychopaths).
So how can we build our empathetic muscle? Here are 6 ways to practice:
Method #1: Crack Open More Fiction
A 2013 study in the uber-prestigious journal Science, found that reading fiction, specifically literature, improves Theory of Mind (aka cognitive empathy)—the ability to know what others think, intend, believe, or want.
In the study, participants were assigned to read one of three types of writing: literary fiction (which included finalists for the National Book Award or a short story by Chekhov), popular fiction (which consisted of top-selling authors on Amazon like Danielle Steel), and non-fiction. A fourth thumb-twiddling group was assigned to read nothing at all.
After they read (or didn’t), the participants filled out questionnaires that measured, among other things, empathy. The results showed that those who read literary fiction did significantly better in terms of empathy than those who read genre fiction, non-fiction, or nothing.
Why? The researchers thought that literary fiction might win out over genre fiction because genre fiction tends to have more archetypal plot lines and characters: the girl next door, the prodigal son, the high-powered but lonely CEO. With all due respect to James Patterson and John Grisham, genre fiction is more predictable, and doesn’t require us to infer or interpret as deeply as literary fiction; therefore, it requires less of an empathic leap. On the other hand, the complicated characters of literary fiction might ask us to flex those those empathic muscles more strenuously.
Method #2: Mirror What You Hear
We could all stand to hone our listening skills. Think of all those times you’ve tried to carry on a conversation while engrossed in a menu, your own thoughts, or of course, your smartphone.
One communication technique is paraphrasing what you think the speaker just said. This is called active listening, which is the opposite of distracted half-hearing. There’s no judgment or approval, just a summary to demonstrate understanding. If the listener is off base, they try again.
For example, your thrifty partner might say to you, “It freaks me out to come home to a pile of Amazon boxes—we’re not made of money, you know.” Try and ignore the instinct to roll your eyes—that only fans the flames. Instead, to practice active listening, you could simply paraphrase, “You’re worried about our online spending.”
It might seem stilted to you, but your partner will be pleasantly surprised. Showing you’re listening not only cuts down on misunderstanding and defensiveness, it also lets the other person know that you are truly willing to talk.
Method #3: Tweak the Golden Rule
Your parents probably seared this into your brain, but with Mom’s permission, let’s tweak the Golden Rule just a little bit. Instead of “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” let’s try “Treat others as they would like to be treated.”
Think about picking out a birthday present: when selecting a gift, you think about what they might like (as least I hope you do), rather than picking out something you like. For example, you'd get your Fox News-loving friend a copy of Bill O’Reilly’s latest book, even though your sole news source is John Oliver (or vice versa).
Of course, this applies to more than just reading material. With strangers or people you don’t know too well, it’s okay to fall back to Mom’s version of the Golden Rule, but when it comes to the important people in your life, treat them as they would like to be treated.
Method #4: Walk a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes
We instruct little kids to do this all the time: “How would you feel if Dylan took your excavator before you were done?” It’s cliche, but turning the tables and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a simple but powerful window into understanding the inner workings of their mind.
For instance, if you can’t figure out why your sister won’t quit drinking, bought that ridiculous car, or puts up with her irritating significant other, ask “What is she getting out of this?”
Behavior exists because it gets reinforced, so to answer the question of “Why?” try imagining yourself in her place. You might realize that her drinking offers some relief from a lousy job and even lousier marriage, the car makes her feel young again, and she sticks with a jerk because she thinks no one else will love her.
Which brings us to...
Method #5: Employ 3 Magic Phrases (But Only If They’re True)
“I get it.”
“That makes sense.”
“Of course you feel that way.”
In total, these phrases equal 12 words, but if spoken truthfully, they will change your relationships.
What these phrases have in common is validation, which is the result of accurate empathy. Simply seeing another person’s perspective can do wonders. Understanding your sister’s point of view on the wine, the car, or the jerk will make her feel understood and supported, even if she knows you don’t necessarily approve. And that will pave the way for a deeper, more trusting relationship.
Method #6: Heartbreak Is OK
This one I’m borrowing from Melinda Gates, who in her 2014 Commencement address at Stanford said, “In the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you'll come to see suffering that will break your heart. When it happens, and it will, don't turn away from it; turn toward it. That is the moment when change is born.”
So instead of just thanking your lucky stars when you witnessing pain and injustice, inspire yourself to change what is written in them. Take a moment and allow yourself to think, “That could have been me.”
To wrap it all up, before you dub your political opponents nut jobs or leave hateful comments on website of which you disapprove, take a moment to see the world through others’ eyes. It’s fine to disagree, even emphatically, but with some empathy, you can see another point of view with a clearer head and deeper heart.
For more on the literary fiction study in Method #1, check out an in-depth article here.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips.
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Disclaimer: All content is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute for mental health care from a licensed professional.