Have you ever felt like life kicked you when you were down? The last thing you want in moments like that is for someone to tell you to suck it up or that it’s no big deal. In this case, wouldn't you want that other person to be a bit more sympathetic?
Learning to be more sympathetic towards others can make all the difference when it comes to your relationships and helps promote your own emotional awareness. When you lack sympathy, you tend to cultivate a selfish viewpoint that leads to social isolation and a lack of meaningful relationships.
This article will teach you steps you can take to relate to others on a deeper level and develop genuine sympathy for everyone you meet.
What is sympathy?
Sympathy is a word we hear thrown around all the time, but what does it mean? Turns out it’s so much more than the title of a cool song from the Goo Goo Dolls.
To put it simply, sympathy is the ability to feel and relate to another person’s emotions. This sense of relatedness is thought to help the person who is in distress to feel a bit better and feel supported.
Interestingly, research indicates that females are generally better at exhibiting sympathy relative to males. The same study also found that young people are generally more responsive to another’s distress than an older person might be.
Speaking from my personal experience, I think we all could use a lesson on how to be more sympathetic, regardless of our age or gender. I tend to rush around each day wrapped up in my to-do list and my own problems.
But every time I take a moment to be sympathetic to the needs of others, I’m pulled out of my own bubble. And being sympathetic reminds me that through connection to others we all find deeper meaning in our own existence.
And you have to admit, nothing makes you feel quite as wonderful inside as helping out someone else.
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Benefits of being sympathetic
While being sympathetic towards others generally sounds like the kind and altruistic thing to do, it also has some science-backed benefits for you.
A study in 2016 found that being more sympathetic can enhance your creativity when it comes to problem-solving. By relating to others, you are able to open your mind to new ways of seeing things which in turn improves your overall creativity.
Beyond just improving your creativity, research has also found that in cultures where individuals are more sympathetic the population is generally happier and healthier.
As someone who could always use a bit more creativity and definitely strives to be happy, I think it’s clear that improving my overall sympathy towards others is a good idea.
On a personal level, I know that when I’m sympathetic toward my loved ones it strengthens the relationship.
It wasn’t until my best friend went through a particularly rough situation that we became close. Sympathizing with her during that time created a connection that I don’t think could have been formed otherwise.
Needless to say, being sympathetic may be a key part of finding your own happiness and contributing to society as a whole.
5 ways to be more sympathetic
Let’s dive into tips you can take to help take your sympathy up a notch and deepen your connection to those around you.
1. Practice active listening
I think we all like to think we’re great listeners. But if you think about your last conversation, how many times did you interrupt the other person?
I find we tend to interrupt individuals even more when they’re describing a problem or hard time they’re going through. It’s like we want to step in and “fix it” for them.
The problem with this is by interrupting or not listening well, the person feels like you’re not being understanding of their emotions and needs.
Oh boy, do I have a prime example of this one. Just the other day my husband asked me how my day was at work. It had been a tough day and I began to describe why I was feeling that way.
He interrupted me while I was about two seconds into my description with his thoughts. All this did was irritate me. At that point, I no longer wanted to share how I was feeling and I just wanted to get away from him.
Active listening opens the door to a sympathetic response. If you’re not giving the person time and space to communicate, then you’re not on track for connecting to what they’re feeling.
Here are more tips on how to be a better listener.
2. Pay attention to others’ emotions
A great way to improve your overall sympathy for others is to become aware of how others are feeling in the first place.
Even when people are not verbally communicating their feelings, you can glean a lot from their body language.
Now I am by no means an observant person who gets this right all the time. In fact, most of the time I’m rushing so quickly from one thing to the next that I forget to look at the world around me.
However, in this instance, I noticed at work that one of the assistive personnel was sitting slouched over and could barely keep her eyes open. It was pretty clear something wasn’t quite right.
I simply went up and asked her how she was doing. That opened the door to her telling me about some familial stress that was going on in her life.
By being aware of her emotions, I was able to show sympathy and this has helped foster our workplace relationship.
Become aware of both verbal and nonverbal communication that communicates emotional well-being. This simple tip alone can help you be more sympathetic in all areas of your life.
3. Flip your perspective upside down
Sometimes you have to be willing to change your perspective to be better at sympathizing with those around you.
This tip is super useful for moments when you may find it hard to sympathize with someone. However, it’s important to remember that the person is in need of sympathy because they are generally feeling hurt.
I was having a conversation with a friend about how he couldn’t find a job the other day. A big piece of me wanted to say I thought it was ridiculous that he was having a hard time because there are so many physical therapist positions available.
Instead of saying the first thing that came to my mind, I listened to him and tried to put myself in his shoes for a bit. I remembered that he has two young kids and needs specific hours because of daycare for his kids.
I also remembered that he has significant debt in the form of student loans, car payments, house payments, and so on and so forth.
When I took into consideration all these factors, it became apparent he couldn’t just accept any old PT job out there. He needed one that fit his needs.
This shift in perspective helped me be more sympathetic towards his struggle of finding a job and helped prevent me from looking like an ignorant jerk in the process.
4. Don’t try to be a problem solver
This tip is a bit on the tricky side. It’s important to remember when someone is telling you about their issues they are not necessarily seeking your advice in relation to a solution.
If the person is actively soliciting your advice, then by all means feel free to give it.
But when you automatically assume the role of “problem solver” when someone is describing their feelings, you lose your ability to sympathize with them.
In many cases, the person just wants to communicate their feelings and to be understood in return.
And when you take on the role of “problem solver”, you can inadvertently come off as insensitive.
Just let yourself be with the other person while they communicate their needs and feel their feelings. It’s bound to be more therapeutic for both of you.
5. Ask questions
One of the easiest ways to demonstrate more sympathy is to get curious. Ask questions about the person’s situation or feelings.
By asking questions, you are demonstrating that you’re interested in their situation and want to understand it fully. This inherently helps you connect with the other person.
Remember my friend who was having a hard time finding a job? When I was having a conversation with him, I started to ask him a bunch of questions about why he felt the way he did.
That’s when he went deep into all the contributing factors to his situation. I also asked him what he thought potential solutions would be.
Throwing that question back at him made him realize that I wasn’t coming off as though I had the answer to his problems. Instead, it helped me understand where his headspace was in the process of finding a job and we both were able to better understand what he needed.
If you find yourself struggling to sympathize with someone, start asking more questions. Oftentimes you’re just a few questions away from being able to relate to someone on a whole new level.
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At the end of the day, we could all use a bit of extra sympathy when it comes to how we interact with our fellow man. The tips from this article will help you form and develop meaningful connections in all areas of your life by sharpening your sympathy skills. You may just find that all it takes is a bit of sympathy to help pick someone back up after life has kicked them down.
Do you find it hard to be more sympathetic? What has helped you become more sympathetic? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!