Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How to Develop and Strengthen Your Empathy

Seventy-three percent of people believe more empathy would improve society.

Key points

  • An important part of being human is to embrace emotions, even if it's uncomfortable.
  • Addressing the discomfort of one's own moods makes a person more adept at dealing with the discomfort of other people's moods.
  • One of the most challenging aspects of being empathetic is to avoid turning the narrative around to be about oneself.
Josh McDowell/Shutterstock
Source: Josh McDowell/Shutterstock

Learning to show empathy to a friend, colleague, or loved one in distress is not a simple skill. It is a muscle that we must use and develop. Sometimes people mistake empathy for compassion or an expression of sympathy. However, empathy is the ability to hold space for another person’s feelings and communicate to them you understand their emotional landscape—even if the feelings that you’ve experienced differ from theirs.

The need for empathy

And especially since the pandemic, research shows empathy is on the decline. In fact, according to a 2007 study on empathy, published by Nature Neuroscience, only 1 to 2 percent of the population are truly empathetic. In a more recent study conducted by Method Communications last year, they noted 25 percent of Americans find that empathy "doesn't matter," but an overwhelming majority (73 percent) agree it would be better for society if people were more empathetic. In a 2021 Empathy in Business survey by consulting giant EY, 89 percent of respondents said empathy leads to better leadership, 85 percent said it boosts productivity, and 87 percent said it increases levels of trust among employees and leaders.

Four techniques to help you be more empathetic

If you’re concerned about your lack of empathy and want to develop and strengthen your skill set, here are four areas and techniques that can help you feel more empathetic towards people and different situations that you’re experiencing with them.

  1. Increase your tolerance for emotions. An important part of being human is to embrace your emotions. Even if they’re uncomfortable, it’s not as scary as you think. Emotions are like clouds in the sky. Think of each cloud being a mood with neutral moods being the open sky in between. They’ll move along if you just observe and don’t fixate on them. If you’re besieged by multiple moods simultaneously, just accept it as a stormy day. Avoid reacting to all your moods. Just try to hold space for them.
  2. Avoid trying to solve moods. Realize that it isn’t possible for you to solve moods. You can solve problems, but moods come and go in their own timeframe. So, don’t let your moods overwhelm you, or believe that you can rescue yourself or someone else from their moods. It’s okay to be curious and try to pinpoint if a problem triggered your mood. Exercise the resilience of accepting the mood until it passes.
  3. Accept discomfort. Learning to accept the inherent discomfort of your own moods will help you become more adept at dealing with the discomfort of other people’s moods. Once you’re able to manage your own discomfort, you’ll avoid the risk of blowing through another person’s mood to get to a place that’s more comfortable for you. When you’re sitting with someone else’s discomfort, you can communicate, “I’m here for you as long as you need me,” “We can sit quietly or talk,” “If there’s anything I can do differently as your feelings evolve, just let me know.” Remember, you’re not offering solutions to their moods, you’re expressing your empathy towards them.
  4. Stay true to the narrative. One of the most challenging aspects of being empathetic is to avoid turning the narrative around to be about you. Express that you understand without integrating details about your own experiences. Be concise: “I understand the shame that you feel.” “I feel for you and the pain and heartache you’re dealing with.” Show the person empathically that you appreciate and respect where they are emotionally—and stick to their story.

The world would benefit from a more empathetic universal society. It would enrich and improve human interaction by making people feel known, seen, heard, and understood.

With practice, it will enable us to build and strengthen our interpersonal relationships. It would also empower us to become more empathic listeners to our family, friends, and business associates, and they would be tremendously grateful for it.

References

Chris Taylor, November 10, 2021, "Empathy is the go-to leadership skill at the moment—and yes it can be learned," Fortune Magazine

Method Communications, October 27,2021, "Report: Is Empathy Dead In America?" PR/Newswire

advertisement