What is Empathy and How Can We Develop It?

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Empathy is the ability to understand another person's feelings and see things from their point of view, rather than solely from your own. In order to understand what they are going through, you try to put yourself in their shoes. Empathy gives us the capacity to pick up on emotional signals through body language and facial expressions.


How Can I Become More Empathetic?

Martin Hoffman is a psychologist who studied the development of empathy. According to Hoffman everyone is born with the capability of feeling empathy, but some people are more naturally empathetic than others. Empathy can be an extremely helpful emotion that will allow you to connect with other people. On the other hand, having poor empathy skills can lead to consequences like loneliness in a relationship and social isolation. The good news is, empathy is a skill that can be learned!


Below are a few situations that might be restricting your ability to convey empathy and some tips on how to address them. 


You have trouble paying attention to others.

Often times, when we are multi-tasking, or distracted by other things in our environment, we tune out to others when they are communicating with us. Staying motivated to truly observe someone else's body language and gestures can be difficult. 

How to change it: 

By understanding how important being empathetic is to your success in your personal and working life, you can increase your motivation to listen to other people. When people are talking to you, try to eliminate the distractions you can control. For example, you can put your cell phone down, or mute the TV. 

You can also try to work on your ability to read and understand non verbal communication cues like body language. By being attentive to these non verbal cues, you will develop a more keen sense of the other persons inner state. 


 

You feel empathy, but are not sure how to communicate it. 

Sometimes feeling empathy is not the problem, knowing how to communicate it to the other person is. 

The Solution:

Try increasing your awareness of your own non-verbal expressions. Notice how you are communicating with your body language while interacting with others. Ask people around you to give you some honest feedback in various situations, especially ones that are more emotional so that you can improve during the next one. Take a special note of who you have difficulty communicating empathy to. Is it one person in specific, or many?

By listening to and mirroring friends, teachers, mentors, or leaders who communicate empathetically, you can begin to mimic those skills. Practice saying certain empathetic phrases out loud like: "I'm so sorry you are going through this" in several different tones. Like any skill, practicing out loud is a great way to grow and develop empathy. 


You struggle to feel empathy, but understand the importance of communicating empathetically. 

This is known as cognitive empathy. Showing empathy, even if you don't feel it, is better than not showing any empathy at all! 

The Solution:

It's perfectly okay to disagree with someone, but still understand what they may be feeling and why. Sometimes, just listening without judgement is enough to convey cognitive empathy. Just by communicating with the person in a real way, you will show that you understand how they feel and what they are experiencing.