Empathy is a key skill in almost any relationship, and can affect our ability to perform well in job interviews, to negotiate with bosses, to get along with co-workers, to succeed in romantic relationships, and to support friends in times of need. While many animals seem to possess empathy, empathy is such a key component of human relationships that the ability to empathize with a broad array of perspectives is arguably what makes us human. Unfortunately, we all run into difficulty empathizing with others from time to time. Improving your empathy skills can improve all of your relationships as well as make you a better reader of human behavior. If you want to improve your empathy skills, here’s how to do it:
Consciously Choose to Empathize
This may seem obvious, but in the fast-paced world of small talk and two minute instant messenger conversations, it can be easy to forget how important it is to empathize at the right time. Practice recognizing situations in which it is vitally important for you to take the perspective of another. These include fights with your spouse, times of stress for friends and family, and negotiations with employers. When another person’s feelings are important for you to understand, pause and remind yourself that you want to focus on empathizing.
People who are good at empathy are good active listeners. They focus on what another person is saying and think about it as the other person is talking. They don’t wander off into their own world. It can be a challenge to not occasionally get distracted, but there are things you can do to remain focused and become a better active listener. Think about the other person’s body language; ask them responsive questions; comment on what you think they may be feeling, and mirror their state of mind. All of these strategies help you to relate better to they way they are feeling and listening fully is the first step in being able to communicate in an empathetic way.
Put Yourself In Their Shoes
The hallmark of empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. “But”, a person who is bad at empathy might protest, “I’ve never been in this person’s situation, so how can I know how they feel?” The truth is it doesn’t matter if you’ve never had a parent die, gotten fired, or whatever the other person is upset about. All people know what fear, anxiety, sadness, frustration, etc. feel like. So think back to a time you felt the emotion they are feeling to the degree they are feeling it. Think about what you were like at that time or what you needed at that time, and you will be better able to empathize.
Don’t Argue About Feelings
People who need empathy often ask for advice. Proceed with caution in these situations. So often, when someone is talking about his or her feelings, they really just want a friendly ear. However, if you choose to give advice, make sure not to argue about or belittle feelings. Let’s say a friend is seeking advice about a troubled romantic relationship. Saying, “I think you’re overreacting to John” or, “It will be fine” or, “It’s not a big deal” are all excellent ways to belittle feelings and make a person feel worse. Instead, you should mirror their feelings by saying, “Yes, that is really terrible” or, “No, I can’t believe he’s doing that.” After you have established that you understand and sympathize with what they are going through, then you can proceed to give advice. Many of us get in trouble by giving advice before we have proven that we understand, but those who are best at empathy don’t make this error!
Check Your Assumptions
Sometimes when dealing with someone who is upset, we assume we know how they feel. You might, for example, assume that someone going through a breakup is sad. They may instead be frustrated, angry, relieved, or some combination thereof. State back to the other person what they are feeling to make sure you respond appropriately, and if they correct you, listen to them.
It’s Not About You
Emotional people act like emotional people, which is a truism the less empathetic among us tend to forget. If someone is ranting and raving about their crazy sister or evil boyfriend, don’t tell them they’re being too emotional or focus on how their feelings are affecting you. When people are in crisis or feeling hyperemotional, it’s time to check your own feelings at the door and focus on them, in the hope that they will do the same for you.