If you’d like to be more empathetic, you can implement strategies to cultivate empathy, also known as “walking in someone’s shoes.”
Did you know that there might be three kinds of empathy? Cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy are the most discussed types.
- Cognitive empathy involves the ability to identify how someone else feels.
- Emotional empathy is linked to feeling what someone else is feeling in a challenging situation.
- Compassionate empathy refers to a combination of cognitive and emotional empathy that encourages you to act out of concern.
Genuine empathy may be linked to compassion. It’s often viewed as the ability to understand how someone else is feeling, and what they need, even if you can’t relate to their circumstances. It helps you understand others and leads you to behave in appropriate ways based on this understanding.
For some people, this type of empathy comes naturally, but you can always be more empathetic. And empathy can be strengthened and developed over time.
Empathy vs. emotional intelligence
Empathy is a part of emotional intelligence, but they’re different concepts in psychology.
Emotional intelligence represents your ability to correctly identify and manage emotions in yourself and others.
Empathy is the aspect of emotional intelligence that helps you understand what others feel and may motivate you to action.
It’s natural if you don’t always understand what someone’s going through. This isn’t necessarily a lack of empathy.
Many factors are involved in putting yourself in other people’s shoes, including your personal experiences.
In any case,
1. Connecting with others
It can be easy to assume everyone’s just like you — thinking the same things, having the same opinions, living the same experiences.
Even when you know people are different, you might find it surprising when someone offers an insight that’s different from yours.
Cheryl Delaney, a licensed professional counselor in Atlanta, explains that learning about others can be a big step in becoming more empathetic.
“Most of the time, we assume that other people are just like us so their behavior doesn’t make sense to us,” she says.
When you don’t know much about the other person, explains Delaney, it’s more likely that you can’t understand their behavior or way of thinking. If you can’t understand it, you may have a more difficult time empathizing with it.
For example, if you enjoy attending parties, you might be surprised to learn someone prefers staying home by themselves if given the option.
Empathy starts by learning more about these differences and connecting with other people’s interests, motivations, and reasons to be.
- Why does someone enjoy time alone?
- What do they do when they’re by themselves?
- Do they live with a condition that makes social gatherings challenging to handle?
Connecting with other people’s experiences can help you improve your empathy.
You can connect with others by:
- asking questions
- actively listening
- letting them know you’re available for support
- including them in activities and events
- giving them the benefit of the doubt
Learning from others doesn’t always come from personal interaction. Different actions can help you learn more about others and connect with different groups of people:
- following people living with different circumstances, cultures, or preferences
- reading about topics you’re not familiar about
- attending lectures and events about important world happenings that affect others but you
“Learn from those who are willing to share themselves with you and gain some understanding of what it’s like to live with a whole different lens on the world,” says Delaney.
2. Experiencing the world firsthand
Developing empathy can be challenging if you don’t have access to other people’s stories and realities.
Deirdre Cummings, a licensed professional clinical counselor and lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky, offers a number of tips to do this:
- volunteering at shelters, hospitals, or community centers
- meeting new people, particularly from other backgrounds
- attending events with diverse audiences
- inviting acquaintances over to get to know them better
Exposing yourself to new stories and life situations can help you learn that the world is a large place with a variety of perspectives and experiences.
3. Engaging with others
Compassion is an essential part of the type of empathy that partners with concern and moves you to action. Kindness is at the root of compassion.
Delaney recommends the following exercise for you to consider if trying to develop more empathy overall:
- Think of at least one compliment you can give every person you come in contact with.
- Decide if you want to say it out loud to them or just keep it to yourself.
- Cultivate the habit of thinking about the things you like and admire about others.
Kristen Zaleski, a researcher and psychotherapist in Los Angeles, believes you can put empathy in motion through a 3-step process:
- Recognize the challenge another human may be facing.
- Look inward and connect to the emotion the challenge provokes in you.
- Transfer the emotion into actions and offer it back to the person.
Like most things, actively practicing empathy may help make it a more natural response in every situation.
Since empathy can be a challenge to express, Cummings suggests using the following guidelines when trying to act more empathetically:
- Respect other people’s boundaries.
- Look someone respectfully in the eye during interactions.
- Put your phone away and give all your attention when talking with someone.
- Invite people to speak with you again.
- Avoid morphing their story into your own experience.
Cummings also recommends letting people know how important your interactions are, even if you don’t know them well.
You can use statements such as:
- “Thank you for sharing this with me. You really opened my heart and my mind.”
- “I was meant to talk with you today.”
- “You have brought light into my life. Thank you.”
Delaney adds some important “don’ts” you may want to consider too:
- Don’t give unsolicited advice.
- Don’t compare stories.
- Don’t tell other people “it’s better this way.”
More examples of practicing empathy
- offering to mow your neighbor’s yard because you noticed they injured their knee
- preparing meals for a friend who’s mourning the loss of a loved one
- donating to your local food pantry and helping them serve or deliver the food
- smiling and saying “thank you” to the cashier who looks overwhelmed and upset while checking you out at the supermarket
- leaving your work area clean so the cleaning personnel doesn’t have to spend extra time doing so
- leaving bowls of water outside during a drought so wild animals can cool down
You can start developing empathy very early in life. If you’d like to support this process in a child, these tips may help:
- “Read books about lots of different kinds of people and ask children questions about the books to deepen their understanding,” recommends Delaney.
- Cummings suggests children seek pen pals from other areas of the world.
- Packing up old clothes and toys and delivering them to a shelter, is another method Cummings endorses. She advises it’s important to add a discussion about what a shelter is and why people sometimes need to rely on them.
Empathy can help you understand what someone is going through. It can also lead you to action and offer comfort to others.
Most people grow up with the ability to develop empathy, but the more you practice it, the more empathetic you can become.
Learning more about other perspectives, connecting with diverse groups of people, and trying to give others the benefit of the doubt can help you be more empathetic.