How we interact with everyone we come in contact with each day can have a powerful impact on ourselves and others. Whether it’s your family, colleagues, friends, clients, barista, fellow grocery store shopper, or someone whose story you see on the news—most of us could be more empathetic. Here are a few tips for improving empathy.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is a word we all know but one many of us have never given much thought to. It’s often used interchangeably with or mistaken for sympathy, but the difference between these two words is significant.
Empathy fuels connection, while sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy is required for unity, and sympathy is often used to maintain division. An empathetic response is feeling with someone instead of engaging in judgment or jumping to conclusions. It’s a choice to be vulnerable and to feel, even if you have never experienced a similar situation—and especially if someone’s life or circumstances differ greatly from yours.
Sympathy includes any combination of sorrow, pity, and judgment. It is often accompanied by looking down on, minimizing, or explaining away a person’s experience. In the name of trying to “help” we may skip past the discomfort of the moment or what they have shared and go straight to trying to make things better. A sympathetic response can make matters worse, leaving the person feeling alone and misunderstood.
An empathetic response prioritizes connection. It can be a simple as saying “I don’t know what to say but I’m so happy you shared that with me.”, leaving the person who has shared feeling heard and understood. Then, follow up in a timely manner to see how things are progressing.
This video by Brené Brown is a more in-depth demonstration of the concepts above.
The 3 Types Of Empathy
As you develop your emotional intelligence and prioritize connection through empathy, it may be helpful to learn the 3 types of empathy:
Cognitive—this is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. If we have been where they are, cognitive empathy can help us to respond better, but again, there is no “right” thing to say. It’s only important that you say something compassionate.
Emotional—this is the sensation of when you physically feel the pain of the other person. You experience this response when you watch a movie, read a book, or watch the news are brought to tears. Unfortunately, in real life, we do not always respond in the same manner. Developing this skill helps you to grow a deeper connection with the person sharing with you.
Compassionate—this type of empathy follows cognitive or emotional, as it moves you to act. This is not the sympathetic “fix it” action but finding meaningful ways that are helpful to the person you are empathizing with. You can begin by asking them what would be helpful to them, as what we think may be helpful may be to them.
Here are 4 things you can do to develop and improve your empathy.
1. Practice Self-Empathy
If it’s difficult for you to be vulnerable or accept an empathetic response, you will need to start with yourself. Begin with the often conflicted truth, it is stronger to be vulnerable than it is to keep things bottled up.
How do you know you can benefit from self-empathy or self-compassion? If you often beat yourself up, compare yourself to others, or have yet to forgive yourself for past or present mistakes—empathy must begin with you.
Otherwise, if you view vulnerability as weakness you can never truly connect with others, and may not be letting others in. You end up projecting your self-judgment onto others, even if that is not your intention.
To further connect with yourself, practice mindfulness to identify your feelings, read interpersonal development books, join a support group, and consider talk therapy.
2. Practice Makes Perfect
Practice compassion by making a conscious effort to be more empathetic. Remember, perfection is not the goal, but keep trying to connect.
If someone you know communicates something challenging, you must respond through words or maybe even a hug. If it’s someone you don’t know, respond if it’s appropriate, but it isn’t always depending on the circumstance. Whether you know them or not, responding may be uncomfortable—but empathy requires you to look pain in the eye without turning away.
For example, if a customer in front of you just lost it on the barista, say something simple like “That was completely inappropriate. Customer service is so hard. Thank you for being here.”
If you’re in the grocery store and a toddler is throwing a temper tantrum, you can think judgmental thoughts and shoot their parent a dirty look—or you can respond with empathy, understanding that they’ve clearly had a rough day.
You can remain silent, or you can offer a quick comment such as, “I’ve been there too. I promise this stage won’t last forever.” Or add some humor, “They grow out of this stage soon, but it might return again in their teenage years.”
3. Consider Times You Desired Empathy
As you begin putting empathy into action in your life, think back on challenging times that others responded to you with judgment, pity, or quick fixes. This isn’t to assign blame, but to help you create a response that would have made you feel understood.
Consider tough experiences such as a breakup, losing your job, a death in the family, or health problems. However, you must consider the in-the-moment responses as many of our most meaningful connections happen in day-to-day life.
A coworker spills coffee on their white blouse in the morning and has to walk around all day with a coffee stain. Do you laugh or tell them to be more careful next time, or do you offer them your scarf to hide the stain?
4. Get Curious
It’s time to throw the saying “curiosity killed the cat” out the window. Curiosity is one of the most meaningful ways of developing empathy. It will also make your life richer and fuller. Curiosity is not a fast process and requires a lifetime commitment.
If not curiosity, apply critical thought by asking questions and seeking answers. For example, “if that’s true for her, what else would have to be true?”
This doesn’t mean that anyone needs to share more with you, as that is entirely up to them. So, respect their privacy and boundaries.
Thankfully, it’s never been easier to explore curiosity:
Ask friends and family members more about their lives, and about difficult experiences—if they choose to share more.
Read more books, both fiction and non-fiction, to learn other people’s stories.
Google a topic in search of facts and research, but most importantly for individual experiences.
Try a new hobby, art, craft, sport, or physical activity with the intention of also meeting new people.
Ask someone you know how they are doing and listen.
Accept an invitation to a holiday or event of a religion or culture you don’t practice or currently know much about.
Volunteer in your community and ask the organization questions about why there is a need for what they do.
Strike up conversations with both strangers and people you don’t know well. Be mindful and respect their boundaries but ask further questions about things they share with you.
Allowing yourself to connect with others can take an emotional toll, but remember empathy is also about celebrating in others joy and success. When the weight of emotions is high, consider soothing your mind and body with Holmes Organics CBD.