Empathy is the ability to relate to others’ thoughts, emotions and perspectives. Where sympathy helps us to support others with compassion and sensitivity, empathy helps us to experience their emotions on a more personal level.
Because empathy helps us to develop deep levels of rapport and trust, it can be a valuable skill for building successful relationships at home and at work. Some people seem to be natural empaths. For others, stepping into someone else’s shoes is easier said than done. Fortunately, according to current research, empathy is a habit we can build by incorporating one or more exercises, like those following, into our everyday lives.
Be Curious about Others: Try asking questions. Curiosity can help expand our empathy when it leads us to interact with people inside and outside of our usual social circles. It’s especially helpful when it leads us to encounter lives and world views that are different from our own.
Find Common Ground: Preconceptions and assumptions can be the biggest impediments to empathy. When interacting with others, try looking for common ground—things that you share—rather than things that divide you. Remember that you can disagree with someone but still try to understand what they may be feeling and why.
Listen Intently: Listen with your eyes, ears, brain and heart, not only hearing what others are saying verbally, but being sensitive to what’s going on emotionally as well. Try to grasp the speaker’s emotional state as well as their words. Try to also not zone out or be thinking of your response when someone is speaking to you. If you notice yourself doing one of these things, just gently remind yourself to bring your attention back to what the other person is expressing.
Share Their Experience: As others share their stories with you, use memory and imagination to try to relate to their emotional experience on a deeper level. Think back to a time when something in your life made you feel or think in the same way. Or, if you’ve never shared a similar experience, try picturing how you would feel if what they describe had happened to you.
Reserve Judgement: Practice listening with compassion and kindness. The more you practice this the stronger you will become at it.
Open Up: Empathy is a two-way street, so listening is only half of the communication equation. To truly build rapport allow yourself to open up as well. Revealing our own feelings and experiences is vital for creating mutual trust and understanding.