Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings and emotions. It is essential to building good relationships, both at work and in your personal life.
People who don’t exhibit empathy are viewed as cold and self-absorbed, and they often lead isolated lives. Sociopaths are famously lacking in empathy. Conversely, someone who is empathetic is perceived as warm and caring.
Research shows that empathy is partly innate and partly learned. Everyone’s brain is hard-wired for empathy, containing millions of “mirror neurons”. Scientists believe these neurons help us empathize by literally feeling the actions of others.
Regardless of where you are starting from, however, you can improve your ability to tune into others.
Here are nine ways to strengthen your own empathy:
1. Challenge yourself.
Undertake challenging experiences to push you outside your comfort zone.
Learn a new skill, for example, such as a musical instrument, hobby, or foreign language. Develop a new professional competency. Doing things like this will humble you – and humility is a key enabler of empathy.
2. Get out of your usual environment.
Travel, especially to new places and cultures. It gives you a better appreciation for others.
3. Get feedback.
Ask for feedback about your relationship skills (e.g., listening) from family, friends, and colleagues—and then check-in with them periodically to see how you’re doing.
4. Explore the heart, not just the head.
Read literature that explores personal relationships and emotions. This has been shown to improve the empathy of young doctors.
5. Walk in others’ shoes.
Talk to others about what it is like to walk in their shoes— about their issues and concerns and how they’ve perceived experiences you both shared.
6. Become aware of your biases.
We all have hidden (and sometimes not-so-hidden) biases that interfere with our ability to listen and empathize. These are often centered around visible factors such as age, race, and gender.
Don’t think you have any biases? Think again—we all do.
We all have biases that interfere with our ability to listen and empathize. These are often centered around visible factors such as age, race, and gender. Don’t think you have any biases? Think again—we all do.
7. Cultivate your sense of curiosity.
What can you learn from a very young colleague who is “inexperienced?” What can you learn from a client you view as “narrow”?
Curious people ask lots of questions (point 8), leading them to develop a stronger understanding of the people around them.
8. Ask better questions.
Bring three or four thoughtful, even provocative questions to every conversation you have with clients or colleagues.
9. Cultivate some humility.
Gandhi said, “To discover the truth, one must become as humble as the dust.”
The great writer C.S. Lewis put it another way: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
If you don’t believe you have something to learn from others, you won’t listen well or empathize. You won’t take an interest in what others have to say.
Think about how the circumstances of your birth and upbringing have helped you be who you are and succeed (what if you had been born in the Middle Ages?).
Look at your own struggles, in some way, as gifts that help you empathize with others.
The circumstances of your life have helped you be who you are and succeed. Look at your own struggles as gifts that help you empathize with others.
Want to improve your ability to empathize and listen? My acclaimed online course, Building Relationships that Matter, is a masterclass on relational skills such as empathy. It also includes in-depth lessons on building rapport, developing trust, gaining influence, healing relationship conflicts, and other powerful skills.