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Want Better Relationships? Learn to Be More Empathic

Learn to enhance your empathy and your relationships in three steps.

Relationships often suffer because people get so caught up in their own experience that they simply can’t relate to what someone else is going through. They assert their opinions and hand out advice – all the while not truly appreciating the other person’s struggles. If you do this too often, it can really strain your relationships. However, you can solve this problem by working directly on improving your ability to have empathy for others.

According to researchers Norma Feshbach and Shari Kukenbecker, there are three essential parts to empathy. As you read about each one, keep in mind that all three are needed to be truly empathic:

Ability to take another person’s perspective: This essentially means that you are able to see a situation just as another person would see it.

You can practice perspective-taking by simply thinking about how someone else might see a particular situation. When someone responds in a way you don’t understand or that frustrates you, take a moment (or longer) to calm yourself. Then ask yourself what it would be like to see the world through their eyes. Try to imagine how they might interpret the situation given what you know about them. Think about what you know about them, their background, and their relationships. Consider their personal struggles and vulnerabilities.

Ability to label how others are feeling: This means that you are able to recognize how others feel and label those feelings. If you have trouble doing this or if thinking about how others feel isn’t even a part of what you do, then try the following exercise:

When you see someone responding in a distressed way, think about what their actions, expressions, and gestures might be telling you. For instance, if someone’s eyes become teary, their voice wavers, and they seem to be shrinking back from you, there is a good chance they are feeling sad or afraid. It also helps to try to understand their perspective, as discussed above. (You might find it easier to begin with watching others interact so that you can have more distance.)

Connect emotionally with the other person. All the cognitive understanding in the world does not translate to empathy. You must also be able to feel what the other person is experiencing. Fortunately, our brains are equipped with mirror neurons, which “mirror” what we see in others and enable us to feel what they feel.

You can increase your emotional connection to someone by taking their perspective, labeling their feelings, and then being open to how those cognitive exercises make you feel. Then, as you look at the other person, allow yourself to truly shift your awareness to their experience, away from your thinking about them. Pay attention to how you feel in your body, and note the emotions that arise. Then, when you think you are sharing their experience, you can check in with them about whether your experience is really matching theirs. If the feedback is not a resounding yes, ask for clarification so that you can realign yourself with their experience.

If you follow this process to enhance the three essential parts of empathy, you will find that you connect more deeply with others. Your social connections will be enriched. And you will feel more fulfilled in your relationships.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD Relationships blog and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.

Dr. Becker-Phelps is also the author of Insecure in Love.

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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.

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