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Learn Empathy in Just 5 Steps

Empathy comes more easily to some, but it’s possible to learn it!

Source: Irina Kozorog/Shutterstock
Source: Irina Kozorog/Shutterstock

Your relationship with others determines much of your happiness and success in life. How you get along with coworkers, bosses, family, friends, and romantic partners often depends on your social skills, and at the root of good social skills is one thing: empathy.

Empathy means the ability to understand and share the feelings and experiences of another. In other words, empathy is imagining yourself in someone else’s skin: feeling what they feel and seeing yourself and the world from their point of view. As the character Atticus Finch says in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Empathy adds depth to the love you feel for others. With empathy, you see those you love for who they are, not whom you imagine or wish them to be. You appreciate them for their qualities, not just what they do for you, and you acknowledge that even when you share the same experience, you may have different thoughts and feelings. Without empathy, you might assume that their needs, boundaries, and experiences are the same as yours and as a result, you can make assumptions that get you into trouble.

Empathy comes more easily to some, but it’s possible to learn it even if you’re not the most naturally empathetic person. To learn empathy, try this exercise:

  1. Think about your significant other or a friend, family member, or coworker.
  2. What has their mood been like in recent days?
  3. What’s going on in this person’s life that might be making them happy or sad, anxious, or angry?
  4. How are you contributing?
  5. What could you do or say to improve this person’s situation?

For example, let’s say you’re married, and your partner has acted anxious and angry lately. They come home from work agitated, and tension between you runs high. Last night at dinner, they ruminated so much about their day at work that they barely spoke to you, and when they did talk it was to complain about their long commute.

The non-empathetic response would be to snap at them, remind them that your commute is longer, and angrily respond when they don’t ask about your day. That might feel good to do in the moment, and it might be “true,” but is that response helpful? Would it make your relationship better? Would it improve your life or your partner’s life?

No, it would not. Instead, it would make everything much, much worse.

Here’s an example of the empathy exercise at work:

  1. Think about your partner.
  2. Think about how your partner has been very stressed out the last couple of days.
  3. Think about what’s been going on in your partner’s life that may be leading them to feel stressed. Are they working longer hours than usual? Were they passed over for a promotion? Did a coworker or boss say or do something that upset them? You may not know the particulars, but if your partner comes home from work anxious and agitated every day, it’s pretty safe to assume something unpleasant happened at the office.
  4. Go over the last couple of days and think about how you may have contributed to your partner’s situation. You may not be the cause of it, but are you making them feel better or worse? Imagine yourself in the same situation. If you were having a hard time at work, how would you feel if you came home to a partner who snapped at you for complaining about your job?
  5. Finally, consider things you could do or say to improve your partner’s situation. People show and accept affection in different ways. While you may appreciate little gifts as a sign of love, your partner may appreciate actions more. Could you make them something for dinner you know they’ll enjoy? Give them a back rub? Think about what you know would lift your partner’s mood, not what you would like in the same situation.

Empathy–developed by regularly listening to another person’s thoughts and feelings–helps to build both closeness and respect. To know if you’re practicing empathy when talking to someone, keep this empathy checklist in mind:

  • Focus your attention on them when they’re talking. Don’t fidget or check your phone or gaze out the window.
  • Indicate that you’re listening by looking them in the eyes when they speak, nodding when you understand, and touching their hand or using another gesture to indicate your connection.
  • Show your respect by hearing them out without sarcasm or rejection. If you feel yourself getting angry or annoyed, ask to take a break. Get a glass of water and drink it slowly to give yourself time to mindfully re-center yourself.
  • Repeat what they say in your own words to make sure you’re hearing them correctly or ask questions if you’re not clear about their meaning.
  • Validate their emotions. Even if you don’t agree with an opinion, you can acknowledge the person’s right to their feelings.

When you act with empathy toward others, others will respond with empathy toward you. With the empathy exercise and the empathy checklist, you’ve got everything you need to learn and practice this crucial social skill.

More from Andrea Brandt Ph.D. M.F.T.
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