Wondering how to develop empathy and you’re not sure where to start? It’s actually far easier than you might think to learn to help people with this skill.
Most people don’t fully understand the difference between being empathic and having empathy. An empathic person actually feels the emotions of others as their own. That might sound pretty cool, but when you’re constantly feeling a million emotions from one day to the next, can you imagine how exhausting that is? The more likely scenario is that you are someone who has empathy for others, or you’re someone who wants to learn how to develop empathy a little more.
Either situation is a good one. It means you’re keen and eager to become a more helpful person. Someone willing to listen and do good deeds for others. No downside there! But to develop empathy, you first need to know what it is.
At its most basic, empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of other people. Essentially, you’re able to put yourself into their shoes. Empathy isn’t about feeling those emotions in this case, it’s simply about being able to recognize them and understand them. This is the key difference between the empathic mentioned earlier, and yourself, someone wanting to develop more empathy. [Read: 20 positive ways to pay it forward and create a chain of goodwill]
Having empathy is a key part of developing your own EQ *emotional intelligence*. This is very different to your IQ, which is about intelligence. Someone with a higher level of emotional intelligence finds it easier to really put themselves in the shoes of someone else, and therefore understand what they’re going through and feeling to a greater degree.
How to develop empathy? 10 ways to try
By having more empathy in your life, you’re sure to be a happier and healthier person, and you’re also likely to have very strong relationships in your life, including romantic, family-related, and friendships.
#1 Learn how to listen actively. Most people don’t know how to actually listen. They think they’re listening, but they’re only half tuned in. Someone with empathy is able to listen and understand, without judgement and without tuning out and thinking of something else.
So, how do you actually listen actively? It’s about what is being said, as well as what isn’t being said. I’m going to mention body language in a second, but you do need to know a little about it in order to listen properly. Are they making eye contact with you? Do they fidget or show nervous energy? Also, listen to the changes in their tone and pitch.
All of this tells you that what they’re actually saying to you is either true, not true, or simply that they’re scared, anxious, angry, worried, etc.
As far as the words they are saying are concerned, don’t half listen. Really listen to what is being said, and by using non-visual clues alongside, you will be able to get a real picture of what is going on beneath the surface. [Read: How you can learn to be a better listener]
#2 Learn to understand body language. We just mentioned body language, but in some cases body language can be more deafening than words! If someone is crossing their arms or legs, this could signal a defensive move.
If someone avoids eye contact, this could mean that they’re lying to you or feeling equally as defensive. Or if someone constantly touches their hair, messing with their jacket sleeves, or picking their nails, this signals mistruths or nervous energy.
Turning your body towards someone is also a sign of attraction, e.g. mirroring. Someone with empathy is able to read body language as well as listening to spoken words. [Read: Giveaways if they’re lying to your face]
#3 Really put yourself in someone else’s shoes. To understand and offer empathy towards them, you must understand them. If someone shares a situation, really put yourself into it. How would you feel if that was you? What would you do? How would you react? What past experiences would it bring up for you?
By being able to really put yourself into the shoes of someone else, you’re more able to offer genuine empathy, because you understand the situation, you know how it would feel personally, and you can appreciate their pain/joy, whatever the situation entails.
#4 Avoid making judgements or jumping to conclusions. Someone with empathy doesn’t judge or jump to conclusions prematurely. It’s about being impartial and understanding that person’s situation from all sides. When you are able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you see how making a judgement about you doesn’t help. This isn’t offering empathy!
#5 Ask open-ended questions. While you’re listening, it’s a good idea to ask open-ended questions, to encourage the other person to open up a little more. For instance, “How does that make you feel?” This is a good choice for all situations, because it helps the other person speak more, it makes them feel like you’re really interested and listening, and it gives you more information to work with.
#6 Try to relate your experiences to theirs. If someone tells you about an experience they’re having, consider similar situations you may have had in your life and how you dealt with it. You’ll be able to understand them better. Plus, it’s another tool you can use to really appreciate their problem and feelings. It will also help you to see things from their side more easily. This is a great way forward in learning how to develop empathy. [Read: How to be a better person and grow into a kind human]
#7 Be available to help *but not always*. Being the one that everyone goes to for advice is a great thing. Remember to always take time for yourself too! Having said that, there is nothing wrong with letting your close friends feel that if they need you, you’re there to listen. This builds your empathy skills. Your relationships will strengthen and you’ll have more opportunities to practice your new skills as people come to you.
#8 Learn how to detach. Learning how to detach works alongside making yourself available. A person who is a true empath finds it hard to switch off, because they’re constantly being bombarded with the emotions of other people. You’re not feeling those emotions, but if people are always coming to you, you’re sure to take on a few yourself, because the experience will be stuck in your head. While you’re not experiencing the feelings, you remember them.
#9 Meditate to become more in touch with yourself. Connecting with yourself first and foremost is of utmost importance in learning empathy. The more in touch you are with your own emotions, the easier it will be for you to connect with those of other people.
Meditation is a great way to achieve this. It doesn’t have to be about chanting and getting into the lotus position! Simply sitting somewhere quiet, concentrating on your breath, and calming your mind is a great way to meditate. From there, start to explore emotions while in that meditative state. [Read: How to take care of yourself emotionally]
#10 Do it for all the right reasons. Understanding how to develop empathy isn’t all about the willingness to learn. It’s also about knowing that you’re doing it for the right reasons. Helping others should come from a place of selflessness and wanting to be stronger in yourself too. By knowing your reasons for developing empathy, you’ll find the whole journey easier and more fulfilling.