Empathy is the ability to sense and value other’s feelings and perspectives, and take an active interest in their concerns and in what’s important to them. Empathy is both the capacity and skill of being able to enter deeply into the feelings and perspectives of others.
Empathy often gets confused with sympathy, but they’re not the same. Sympathy is recognizing that someone else is feeling something and knowing that there’s some response expected of you. Empathy is when you recognize that someone else is feeling something and you are able to imagine what they’re feeling because you can connect their experience to some experience of your own.
Empathy is a building block of connection. It brings you closer to the lived experience of someone else, and demonstrates your interest in investing in the other person's life.
Why Empathy Matters
It’s almost a cliché that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Empathy involves choosing to understand someone else, and it involves making a connection between your emotional brain and your rational brain. This builds a true connection to another’s experience and, for a short time, makes them the focus of your attention.
Individuals with strong empathic abilities are better able to connect with others in ways that build lasting relationships. Both at work and at home, empathy is at the core of relationship health.
Strengthening your Empathy Skills
Be present in the interaction. Turn off distractions, like your phone or a TV. Give the other person your undivided attention and really listen to what is being said.
Be comfortable saying nothing. Sometimes, it’s important not to respond with your own story. Let the other person feel “heard.”
As you learn to name your own emotions, look to recognize emotions in others. You won’t experience the exact feelings that someone else is, but you can probably find something close in your own life. For example, rather than saying, “I know what that’s like to lose a grandparent,” you could say, “I remember what it felt like when my grandpa passed away, and I know it hurts.”
Avoiding making decision based on stereotypes. Stereotypes deceive you into thinking you know someone else, but they’re often deceptive. Work to understand others rather than assuming knowledge you don’t necessarily have.
Be aware of differences. Everyone responds to events in different ways. Some differences are cultural, some appear to be related to gender, but most come from our families of origin. Work to understand others rather than thinking they’re just like you.
Be alert for expectations. Expectations have a tendency to remain hidden. We often don’t express them, and these hidden expectations can be the source of a lot of frustration and anger. Remind yourself to look for expectations that might be different from reality, or from your own.
Put aside any critical attitude. When you’re trying to connect with other people, criticism and judgement will be barriers. Set aside the desire to define someone else’s experience by your standards and values.
Develop your communication skills. Ultimately, developing empathy is dependent upon your ability to listen and understand another's experience, and to speak in ways that increase the likelihood you’ll be understood.
For Further Reading
Daniel Goleman (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, pp. 96-110.
Daniel Goleman (1998). Working with Emotional Intelligence, pp. 133-162, 322-323.
Steven J. Stein & Howard Book (2000). The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and your Success, pp. 111-124.