As explained by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkely, the term “empathy is “used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”
More recently, it’s been agreed that there are two types of empathy:
“Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety.
“Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing.
“Empathy seems to have deep roots in our brains and bodies, and in our evolutionary history.” And, it can also be taught in both children and adults. As a result, when you’re more empathetic, you’re healthier, happier, and have stronger connections at home, work, and your community. And, if more people were empathetic, it would decrease the negatives in the world.
So, how can you become more empathetic? Well, start with the following five strategies.
1. Actively listen more then you speak.
Active listening is simply listening to someone else first before speaking. To cultivate this, you need to:
Give them your undivided attention and make eye contact. That means putting your phone away while interacting with others.
Don’t interrupt others when they’re speaking, let them finish what they’re saying.
Ask more insightful and relevant questions that are non-judgemental.
Let the other person rant so that they can work through what they’re feeling.
Asking for clarification.
Use phrases like “I get it” and “You should feel that way” for affirmation.
Reflecting back what was said.
And, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Highly empathic people, writes Roman Krznaric, a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, an empathy adviser to organizations like Oxfam and the United Nations, and a former teacher of sociology and politics at Cambridge University, “listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs, whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer or a spouse who is upset at them for working late yet again.”
However, “listening is never enough,” he adds. We also need to “make ourselves vulnerable. Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street."
2. Ask yourself what you’re feeling.
“If many of your emotions are in part a reflection of what another person is feeling, practicing ‘emotional awareness’ on yourself will help you empathize when you are with others,” writes Marcia Reynolds Psy.D. for Psychology Today. “This requires you to teach your brain to access and label your emotional reactions.”
You can develop this skill by checking out Dr. Reynolds’ Emotional Inventory “where you will be asked to stop two or three times a day and pick out what emotion you are feeling from a list of possible sensations.”
“You may also need to work on identifying where in your body your emotions appear,” adds Dr. Reynolds. “Where do you feel fear--in your chest, your throat, or in the back of your neck? Where do you feel anger--in your stomach, your jaw, or in your clenched fists? How about betrayal? Joy? Humiliation?”
“Recall the last time you felt a particular emotion. Try to feel it again,” she adds. “Where does it show up in your body? The quicker you can identify changes in your physical reactions to situations, the easier it will be to know that you are "having an emotion."
3. Examine your biases.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, we all have a bias that interferes with our ability to empathize with others. Often, these are based on differences like age, race, or gender. While you never completely know what it’s like to literally walk in someone else’s shoes, you can relate to them more by meeting new people, learning a new language, and getting out of your comfort zone.
Or, you could read more often. It’s a simple and effective way of putting yourself in another person’s shoes.
“Researchers from Emory University discovered that compassion meditation could improve our ability to empathize with those around us. It is thought that meditation for empathy can do so by activating the areas of the brain associated with compassion. When researchers from Mount Sinai Medical Center scanned patients’ brains during meditation, the brain’s empathy area began lighting up significantly. Meditation may also increase empathy by expanding self-awareness. In calming the nervous system, meditation helps you become more aware of your own emotions, making you more adept at empathizing with others’ emotions. And so as we learn through meditation to see our own thought-patterns, inner dialogue, and suffering, we move closer to the suffering of others. Empathy is essentially an understanding of the shared human condition — and this is the unfolding nature of our own kindness and compassion.”
5. Avoid burnout.
“Many clients have told me that they used to be empathic and now are not,” writes Patrick Wanis Ph.D. “Why not? They are burned out – fatigued.”
“This refers to giving so much of oneself and feeling so much emotion (including pain) over a long period of time that the person now feels drained, fatigued and overwhelmed and therefore shuts down as a self-protective mechanism,” explains Dr. Wanis. “This is a common occurrence with therapists, counselors, caretakers and other such people in positions that create a lot of stress and require a lot of empathy and compassion.”
The solution? “Take time to rest and recuperate; surround yourself with a strong support system of people who can show you empathy.”
Final words of advice.
Start small. Ask a stranger sincerely how they’re day is going. Check-in with an elderly family member. Offer to watch your neighbor’s child if they have to go to the store. Or, make a monetary donation to a local non-profit.