Do you ever wish that a certain person in your life would make the effort to truly understand where you’re coming from? That ability — being empathic — comes more easily to some people than to others. Empathy helps people get along with others, from loved ones to strangers. So it’s worth considering your own aptitude for empathy, which you can hone just like any other skill.
“While either genetic proclivity or our upbringing makes some people naturally empathic, empathy can be cultivated at any point in our lives,” says Dr. Ronald Siegal, PsyD, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Empathy helps us understand other people, so we feel more connected and able to help one another through difficult times, he adds.
What is empathy?
Empathy is a key aspect of emotional intelligence, which also includes the ability to identify and regulate one’s own emotions, and to use these abilities to communicate more effectively.
Psychologist Carl Rogers described empathy as “seeing the world through the eyes of the other, not seeing your world reflected in their eyes.” To be truly empathetic and understand another person’s perspective, feelings, and motivations, you have to be curious about that person.
“Empathy requires paying attention to others’ words and body language, noticing the feelings that arise within us when we interact with them, and asking them about their feelings. Doing this regularly refines our capacity to accurately sense other people’s emotional experience,” says Dr. Siegel.
Research suggests that empathy training can improve this skill. It can be part of counseling or formal programs that teach through experiences (such as games and role-play), lectures, demonstrations, and skills practice. A study that pooled findings from 18 diverse studies of empathy training found the techniques to be effective.
Try these three ways to practice empathy
You can practice these three measures on your own to cultivate greater empathy:
Acknowledge your biases. We all have biases or prejudices toward individuals or groups, whether we’re aware of them or not. So-called conscious bias refers to biases that people recognize. An example would be feeling threatened by another group and voicing opposition to that group’s beliefs or actions. But implicit or unconscious bias is more subtle, making it challenging to recognize. Common examples of these biases relate to differences in gender, race, class, age, weight, and culture. While it can be unnerving and bring up feelings of shame to have our implicit biases revealed, the more clearly we see them, the less they control our thoughts, feelings, and actions. One way to explore your implicit biases is through this test.
Ask questions sensitively. Even though biases may arise frequently in personal interactions, these perceptions certainly aren’t the only reason people fail to understand one another. You can misunderstand someone whose identity and background are very similar to your own. Assume you don’t know how the other person feels, because you probably don’t. Asking questions is the answer. Try something like, “I think my reactions may be different from yours. What’s your experience? How do you see it?” Expressing a willingness to hear another’s perspective will help that person feel respected.
Listen actively. Once you’ve asked a question, be sure to really listen to what the other person has to say. These three techniques can help:
- Make eye contact to enhance your concentration and connection with the other person.
- Don’t interrupt — allow the other person to finish speaking before you respond.
- If the person expresses negative emotions about a situation, avoid suggesting possible fixes unless he or she specifically requests your advice.