Most of us are born with the ability to be empathetic. It is an evolutionary skill we have acquired to help us to connect, understand and live in harmony with others. Some would argue it is the very foundation for understanding and kindness, which places it as an extremely valuable attribute.
Some people are naturally more empathetic compared to others. And although the ability to empathize tends to remain steady throughout life, it is far from fixed. In fact, with some effort, we can all train ourselves to be more empathetic. This is great news if you find it more difficult to empathize and would like to improve.
This article aims to look at what empathy really means, the benefits of being empathetic, what might be holding you back from developing this skill, and some top tips to be more empathetic yourself.
- What does being empathetic mean?
- What are the benefits of being more empathetic?
- What is holding you back from being more empathetic?
- 7 ways to be more empathetic
- Wrapping up
What does being empathetic mean?
One definition of empathy is that it is ‘the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation’.
Essentially, being able to empathize means we are able to understand the feelings, needs, and experiences of other people.
Because of being empathetic, we are then more likely to be able to display other qualities towards others such as:
Something I often got confused with in the past when looking at definitions was the difference between the terms empathy and sympathy.
So, if (like me) you are unsure of this, I have added some clarification.
- Empathy: Understanding someone’s feelings from their perspective and really feeling someone else’s emotions.
- Sympathy: Understanding from your own perspective how someone feels whilst feeling pity or sorry for them.
You can probably see from the definitions that being empathetic goes much deeper than being sympathetic. With empathy, you are immersing yourself in how that person must feel, going beyond the surface level.
And when we do this, we are:
- Actively listening.
- Practicing non-judgment.
- Feeling the emotions of others.
- Recognizing someone's feelings.
- Discovering the perspective of others.
So perhaps next time you are in a situation with another person where you want to offer some comfort, try some actions relating to empathy rather than sympathy!
What are the benefits of being more empathetic?
Not only does being empathetic mean that we can show care and consideration to others, but it also brings a wealth of other benefits such as:
- You can develop stronger and more trusting relationships with others.
- Better wellbeing overall.
- Improved emotional intelligence.
- Better communication skills.
This is all backed up by a wealth of studies that have investigated the impact of empathy on our health, development, and behavior.
Past research has even shown that empathy can support people in adopting more positive attitudes towards stigmatized groups i.e. homeless people. A further study found that when parole officers were more empathetic with adult offenders, it reduced their risk of reconviction.
I think what we can really take from this is that empathy is an extremely powerful and valuable skill. And the impact you can have on others is phenomenal. We have such an amazing superpower in our hands should we choose to use it.
What is holding you back from being more empathetic?
Studies show individuals find being empathetic towards people of their own social groups easier. It is why we developed the ability to empathize in the first place, to survive.
Whilst this is great, it means we tend to generate natural biases towards other groups. Which in turn, can hold us back from being empathetic towards a wider range of people. Being aware of this is crucial if we want to be more empathetic in general.
There are also other reasons which could be preventing you from being more empathetic which may be:
- You have a more rigid way of thinking and find it difficult to change your views (which is also a sign you lack self-awareness).
- You socialize with the same types of people who hold similar lifestyles, beliefs, and cultural values to you.
- Your past experiences growing up have shaped your levels of empathy.
- You find it difficult to get in touch with your own and others' emotions.
Despite many obstacles preventing us from being able to empathize more, just having an awareness of these can help us to address them and make changes.
7 ways to be more empathetic
Take a look at some of the different ways you can develop your empathy levels and start connecting with others on a much deeper level.
1. Take some time to reflect
As humans, we all hold biases. And a good place to start is by doing some inward reflection. Look for patterns or reasons why you hold certain beliefs about specific groups, experiences, or situations. Analyze situations you have been in before where you have felt it difficult to empathise.
Why did you feel like it was hard to connect and understand in this particular situation?
2. Try perspective-taking
Perspective-taking is often seen as the ‘precursor’ to empathic concern. Literally taking the perspective of another person is key to increasing empathy levels and the first step towards being empathetic.
Take time in situations to imagine someone else’s point of view and be respectful of that. It stops us from being judgmental and is a powerful exercise.
3. Be curious
Young children are particularly good at being curious. My four-year-old son is no exception. On a daily basis, he will continuously ask me questions about anything and everything (it always surprises him greatly when I don’t always know the answer to them, how am I supposed to know whether the person walking in front of us owns a cat!?).
But on a serious note, we sadly tend to lose the same curiosity as adults. But by being curious, we are exposing ourselves to different people, their views, and lifestyles. We can then start to open ourselves up to others and our way of thinking.
One way of doing this is to follow people on social media with a different background than you. Or inviting someone for lunch who you wouldn’t normally socialize with. Or in a conversation with a colleague, ask some questions rather than shutting the conversation down with a sympathetic comment.
4. Focus on similarities rather than differences
Actively trying to find similarities between yourself and others rather than differences really helps us understand others' unique qualities and individuality.
Think of this as practicing positive thinking. Instead of looking for the negative, find the positive.
5. Practise active listening
Being able to listen is a real skill. Particularly today when our concentration spans can be lacking. Active listening goes beyond just ‘listening’ as it involves skills such as using positive body language, asking open-ended questions, and avoiding giving advice too quickly.
For more tips, here's a detailed article on how to be a better listener.
6. Be open to changing your attitudes and beliefs
If you are someone who is always adamant that their views are correct all the time, it will make it very difficult to develop empathy. Changing that mindset first is particularly important. Don’t make assumptions about others and be open to changing your views and beliefs.
This comes down to having an open mindset. Here's an article that will help you develop an open mindset.
7. Connect with wider groups of people
Don’t just reserve that empathy for people in your immediate social or work circle. Get out there and be part of the wider community and see your empathy levels increase for others.
This could be through charity groups or community projects. Just talking to a new person is a great start! Expose yourself to those differences and widen that perspective.
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There may be different things holding you back from being empathetic, but if you take the time to recognize these and make small adjustments, you can make big differences to your levels of empathy. I hope you can all find ways to be more empathetic in your everyday life. For if we choose to invest in this skill, we have the power to transform the world and build a brighter, more stable future. It is something we all really need now.
What's your favorite strategy to be more emphatetic? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!