This post is part of an ongoing series from my upcoming Highbrow Course: “10 Days to Better Relationships,” which is focused on—surprise!—improving your relationships.

Today we’re talking about empathy—a critical element of strong, healthy relationships.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When we have empathy for another person, we put ourselves in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. We seek to understand where they are coming from and try to imagine what they are going through.

Empathy is Different From Sympathy

Sympathy is a feeling of care or concern for another person, often accompanied by a wish to see them better off or happier. Sympathy is standing on the outside of a situation, looking in (e.g. “I’m sorry you’re sad.”) Empathy is stepping into the situation and feeling the emotion (e.g. “Wow, this is sad.”).

When we sympathize, we feel for someone because of his or her pain. When we empathize, we feel the pain with them. For example:

Sympathy Empathy
“I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.” “Ugh, the flu is no fun at all.”
Sympathy Empathy
“I’m sorry you’re frustrated. I hope you figure it out.” “Ah, that’s so frustrating!”

Tips for Developing Empathy

If you’re struggling to feel empathy for another person (and we all do, from time to time), the following tips may help:

Empathy Tip #1: Get Curious

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • “What is this person’s background? Could past issues be influencing their reaction?”
  • “What if someone had done that to me? How would I feel?”
  • “If I haven’t had a similar experience, have I ever felt a similar emotion?”
  • “What if that were my [child/parent/job/dog/etc.]?”

Asking questions such as these often uncovers an element or two of the other person’s circumstance that strikes a chord inside you.

Empathy Tip #2: Look at Them

Pause for a moment, let go of whatever thoughts may be zipping through your head, and take a moment to truly see the person across from you on a deeper level. Make eye contact. Recognize that they are a human being with fears, hopes, uncertainties, pain, and joy. Recognize that their life may be a lot harder than you know.

This can be a surprisingly powerful experience when done with sincerity. Taking time to recognize that another person may be hurting, or may be especially excited or hopeful about something, will help you get out of your own head.

Empathy Tip #3: Imagine Them as a Child

This may sound odd, but imagining another person as a young, vulnerable child often makes it easier to feel their emotion.

If you’re having a hard time empathizing with your friend during an embarrassing situation (perhaps you think he should “just get over it”), consider how you would feel if you looked over and saw a four-year-old standing there with fear, shame, and embarrassment visible on his face.

I have been guilty of telling a genuinely scared friend to “man up” even though I would never have said such a thing to a terrified four-year-old.

Imagining others as younger, more vulnerable versions of themselves is a great way to help feelings of empathy flow a little more freely.

Got it? Try it.

The next time someone shares something with you, see how well you’re empathizing with them. This needn’t be a negative emotion, either. If someone is excited, proud, etc., you can still step into their shoes to feel what they’re feeling. (And once you feel empathy, remember to validate them as well!)

What other ways have you found to develop empathy for others?

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