7 Ways Having Better Empathy Can Enhance Your Relationships
Why interpersonal empathy matters, and how you can develop your own.
Posted Dec 19, 2019
If you’ve ever been told to be more empathic—or accused of failing to be—you may well wonder what empathy actually is, and what its role in your life might be. Why bother taking on others’ stress and feelings when it’s enough of a challenge to worry about yourself in today’s world?
In truth, there are many very good reasons to be empathic toward the other people in your life and several things you can do to improve your empathy, as well.
First of all, it’s very easy to confuse empathy with certain other positive qualities, like sympathy or compassion. Feeling sympathetic toward other people may mean putting yourself in their shoes for a moment and asking yourself how they feel. Compassion has to do with feeling pity or concern for others’ suffering.
Empathy, however, requires more than that. It means imagining that you are those people, living through the circumstances of their lives. It means asking yourself how you would feel if you were them, not simply how you would feel if you, yourself, were in their situation. Philosophy professor Amy Coplan describes this as “other-oriented perspective-taking,” rather than the “self-oriented perspective-taking” of imagining what you would do in someone else’s shoes. It means seeing their lives through their eyes.
But why do human beings have this quality? It’s possible that empathy originated and was promoted by the processes of natural selection because (as psychologist Elizabeth Segal notes in Psychology Today) it offers a survival advantage. After all, being able to understand others’ emotions can convey a lot of useful information: If you’re a Homo habilis and your tribe members are terrified by an approaching predator, your ability to tune into their feelings of fear may help you anticipate the attack.
Neurologically, empathy is likely to originate from a part of the brain known as the inferior frontal gyrus. Scientists support this with studies indicating that lesions to this area of the brain can make it difficult to identify the emotions displayed in facial expressions, as reported by Amy Morin. Further research suggests that women appear to be better at empathic connection than men are; indeed, women tend to score higher than men on scientific tests of empathy.
Men, it has also been found, may harbor cognitive biases against feeling or expressing empathy, according to Morin. For instance, in situations they experience as failures, many men tend to write off these failures to external factors, like bad luck, even as they attribute other people’s failures to their personal qualities, such as lack of intelligence or bad judgment. This type of cognitive bias can make it more difficult for any person (of any gender) to take another’s perspective in a way that would support empathic awareness.
There are many good reasons to become a more empathic human being. First of all, consider your health: Empathy can help you reduce stress. As reported by Andy Winder, people who can empathize more easily have less “secondhand stress”—that is, less stress that is triggered by the behavior of others.
Morin indicates that empathy helps you forge social connections, and thus supports healthy relationships; it also helps you resolve conflicts by allowing a better understanding of the opposing party’s state of mind.
In addition, it provides information about the strength of your own feelings relative to those of the other people in your life, which may help you regulate your emotions by lending you some valuable perspective. Because strong interpersonal relationships can enhance one’s sense of general well-being and increase life satisfaction, as reported by Elizabeth Segal on Psychology Today, the relationship-supporting qualities of empathy play a role in promoting this general sense of wellness, too.
At home and at work, empathic attunement to others can help you communicate better. It enhances your awareness of nonverbal cues in the environment, such as body language or eye contact (as Andy Winder suggests). This feedback can offer invaluable insights into the way your social peers respond to you, which should help you relate to others more constructively.
At work, Winder indicates that having greater empathy can help to generate a better, happier environment—perhaps because empathy is associated with an increase in helping behavior, according to Morin. Finally, empathy may also be a part of maintaining healthy job satisfaction over time: In an article published by the journal Social Work, people with better empathic skills were found to be less likely to experience “job burnout.”
Generally speaking, empathy can have significant secondary effects on the world around you. Being more empathic is likely to make your social environment a warmer, brighter place overall. For instance, it’s often difficult to shoulder all the negativity in the news these days on one’s own. Offering empathy to other people can make them feel better understood, as if their concerns—say, about gun violence or climate change—matter more than they may have feared. This sense of validation, as Winder indicates, helps by making people feel less alone with the things that cause stress and anxiety. Segal goes even farther, saying that empathy forms a foundation for moral behavior, which can improve the psychological health of our communities on a broader scale.
There are a few things that any of us can do to become more empathic or to develop our empathy further. For instance, try watching movies in a new way. Rather than paying attention to the plot or the spectacle, try to intuit what the main characters are feeling or thinking as you watch them respond to the powerful emotional provocations the story puts them through. Try to tune in to the characters’ inner lives more actively.
Similarly, you can do this by reading novels as well (as Andy Winder suggests), and working a bit harder to connect with your fictional protagonists’ inner desires or conflicts. The range of emotions these characters endure may have the effect of broadening your own, according to an article by Sarah Kaplan in The Washington Post. Through fiction, you can connect to emotional highs and lows that you may never experience on your own.
Finally, because cognitive biases can limit empathy, it’s a good idea to challenge yourself to identify your own. None of us is immune to implicit bias, in one way or another, according to Winder. But it’s often very difficult to acknowledge these silent assumptions. As long as we fail to recognize them, implicit biases will limit our ability to connect deeply to other people. For the sake of our relationships—and even our health—it’s important to recognize our own limitations as we work harder to reach out to the significant people in our lives.
Burton, N. (2015, May 22). Empathy versus sympathy.
Coplan, A. (2011). Understanding empathy: Its features and effects. In A. Coplan & P. Goldie (Eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and psychological perspectives (pp. 3–18). New York: Oxford University Press. See page 10.
de Vignemont, F. & Singer, T. (2006). The empathic brain: how, when and why? Trends in Cognitive Science, 10(10), pp. 435-41.
Kaplan, S. (2016, July 22). Does reading fiction make you a better person? Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/07/22/does-reading-fiction-make-you-a-better-person/
Kim, J. (2017, December 6). Are You Suffering From Secondhand Stress? Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/secondhand-stress_n_4556964
Kret, M.E. & De Gelder, B. (2012). A review on sex differences in processing emotional signals. Neuropsychologia, 50 (7), pp 1211-1221.
Morin, A. (2019, November 27). Importance and benefits of empathy. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-empathy-2795562
Segal, E. A. (2018, August 2). Empathy is more than “I Hear You.” Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/social-empathy/201808/empathy-is-more-i-hear-you
Segal, E. A. (2018, December 17). Five ways empathy is good for your health. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/social-empathy/201812/five-ways-empathy-is-good-your-health
Wagaman, M. A., Geiger, J. M., Shockley, C. & Segal, E. A. (2015). The Role of Empathy in Burnout, Compassion Satisfaction, and Secondary Traumatic Stress among Social Workers. 60 (3), 201-209.
Winder, A. (2019, February 15). Five benefits of empathy (and how to be more empathetic). Retrieved from https://goals.com/5-benefits-of-empathy-and-how-to-be-more-empathetic