Empathy is the ability to psychologically place yourself in the position of another person so you can gain an accurate and realistic perspective of what they are feeling and going through in their lives or a particular circumstance.
Empathic people tend to exhibit a great deal of compassion for other people, particularly but not limited to people who are going through a challenging time. (2)
Two types of empathy have been identified, emotional empathy and cognitive empathy:
- Emotional empathy, also known as affective empathy, relates to a person being able to feel the same feelings that another person is feeling after they have been through an upsetting or traumatic experience.
- Cognitive empathy is the ability to identify with another person’s psychological state and appreciate what they are thinking and why they are taking the perspective that they have adopted. (8)
How Does Empathy Differ From Sympathy?
Showing empathy has been identified as qualitatively different from sympathy in that the former involves tuning into the perspective and reactions of others and feeling the same emotions as they do.
Whereas the latter is just the process of observing and understanding that someone is going through a tough time without identifying with or feeling the same feelings as them.
Why Is Empathy So Important?
Showing empathy is an important human quality and is a sign of emotional intelligence, whether it is in your personal or professional life. (3a)
According to the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, all humans have a fundamental need to belong and to connect with their fellow human beings.
To help us get along with people we meet throughout our life we need to demonstrate effective communication skills to engage in harmonious interactions with them. (4)
The Benefits of Developing Empathy Include the Following:
- It leads to more pro-social, instead of anti-social behaviour.
- Increases the tendency for people to exhibit altruistic behaviour and decrease aggressive behaviour towards others.
- Improves our mental health.
- Aids communication between people.
- Reduces judgemental behaviour.
Key Characteristics of Empathy
- Being in tune with your own, and other people’s feelings
- Being present in the moment when with another person
- The ability to listen
We all probably feel we listen to what is being said during our day-to-day interactions, but, likely, most of us could probably improve our listening ability, although on the surface many people would probably believe that just by hearing something that is said we are automatically listening. However, this is not necessarily the case. (2)
Characteristics Necessary for Empathy
- The ability to see other perspectives asides from your own, for effective communication between people to take place the listener must understand what the speaker is saying and not relate it to their own experiences and perspectives.
- Be aware of your personal, prejudices and bias tendencies and make sure they do not affect your judgement or understanding of what you are hearing.
- Identify and tune in with the emotional state the other person is feeling.
- Ensure that you communicate to the other person that you understand their emotional state by carefully considering your verbal response. Otherwise, you are vulnerable to trotting out cliches which will make the other person feel like they are not being listened to. (8)
How Can I Become More Empathic?
No one can decide to be more empathic and expect it to happen immediately, there is a fundamental change needed in many aspects of a person’s psychology for them to display empathy.
Luckily, people can shift their mindset and be understanding towards the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of others if they commit to changing their behaviour and put in the necessary work to change.
Social psychologists offer several recommendations that people can consider to develop their empathic side which in turn will make them less judgemental and enable them to show more concern for the predicament and situations of others. (2,3)
1. Learn to be in the present moment.
To facilitate good communication between people both parties to be “in the present moment” when engaging in conversation.
This is not as easy as it seems as our minds have a natural, automatic tendency to wander towards others thinking about other things.
For example, you may be worrying about some news you heard yesterday or your mind may be distracted by thinking about preparing for work you have to carry out tomorrow.
Having either of these thought patterns means that you are not fully present in the current conversation, which can affect your ability to listen, and understand what is being said. The ability to be in the present moment is referred to as mindfulness. (5)
Meditation is a skill which people can learn to become more attuned to living in the present moment.
It does take a great deal of patience and practice but it is a worthwhile task as being in the present moment means people are not over-focused on their thoughts about the past or the future. This results in people being less likely to be influenced by them meaning we are less likely to be judgemental and just to accept things that are said to them. (7)
3. Develop your listening skills.
Many people listen to respond rather than listen to engage in conversation, but if you want to become more empathic get into the habit of fully concentrating when someone tells you something about themselves.
It is easy to switch off when someone is complaining or expressing their frustration and disappointment at the circumstances that they find themselves in. The easy option would be to switch off, be angry at them for complaining and then switch your mind back to your problems.
However, it can be beneficial to listen to other people’s experiences sometimes as this helps us to understand what experiences they are going through and helps you tune into other people’s realities which will help to develop your empathic side. (2)
Practice Active Listening
All therapists, counsellors and psychologists make a clear distinction between hearing and listening.
Concentrating on what someone is saying is known as active listening and takes a lot more concentration and effort than just hearing the words that come out of a person’s mouth. (3)
Active listening requires the following qualities:
- Being fully present in the conversation with others and concentrating on what they are saying (no playing around on the phone).
- Maintaining good body language, including eye contact while they are speaking.
- Asking questions whenever there is an opportunity to find out more, proves to the person expressing their feelings that you are listening to them and are interested in what they are speaking about.
- Reflecting on what has been said and paraphrasing what you have heard back to the person to check your understanding of what they said.
- Listening to understand what you hear and not listening to respond. It is so easy to focus on what you want to say when you have an opportunity to speak, but this means you do not fully hear what the person is saying to you.
- Do not judge the person to whom you were listening, no matter what your personal views are.
- Never give any advice to the person (unless they ask for advice).
Conduct Your Inventory of Yourself/Develop Self-Awareness
It may be worthwhile reflecting on your behaviour and contemplating whether you can be judgemental at times about individuals, or groups of people and explore why this might be the case.
Improving your self-awareness is key and the first stage to achieving this is by reflecting on your behaviour and experiences.
Do you find yourself automatically judging the behaviour and circumstances of other people and brushing aside their explanations and assuming the negative situation they are in is entirely their fault?
By finding out about the specific details of a person’s life you may realise many of your opinions and attitudes are incorrect. You are always likely to get many things wrong if you quickly judge people’s behaviour and comments without appreciating the complexities of their situation.
Ask for feedback from people who know you
Ask people in your life whom you trust to give you honest feedback on yourself, this might help you become more self-aware. It can be very enlightening to realise how your behaviour, perspectives and attitudes come across to others.
Do not be surprised if people in your social circle see you in ways you did not realise, this is quite normal as we all have a blind spot regarding our behaviour.
It may also be helpful for you to try and recall the last time you felt misunderstood, or that others did not value your perspective or situation. Then you can realise how other people might feel when you are too quick to judge.
Acknowledging and resolving painful experiences
To fully start developing your empathic nature it is necessary to make sure you attend to and resolve all previous hurts and negative experiences in your life to fully connect with people and show empathy.
Sometimes we may not fully process all the unpleasant experiences in our lives, and this leads to us internalising these experiences which eventually at an unconscious level affect our perception, psychological processes, attitudes, communication patterns and behaviour.
This behaviour may lead to us coming across as insensitive, judgemental, flippant and lacking empathy. If you feel this may be the case then it would be a good idea to see a counsellor to work through your past experiences. (3)
You do not need to wait until something unpleasant or traumatic has happened to you before you check in with a counsellor or therapist. Many people are motivated by enhancing their self-development which can be a key skill both professionally and socially.
By booking in with a counsellor for a mental check-up and trying to understand your internal processes and how you operate, particularly on an unconscious level you will certainly elevate your self-awareness.
The therapist will help you identify your blind spots that prevent you from being completely self-aware and will be able to provide you with several things to contemplate one of the main areas of focus will be your relationships with other people and your communication style.
If you felt you have been unable to show empathy in some situations then the therapist will explore that with you in the sessions to help you improve that aspect of your communication style. (3)
Avoid Making Quick Automatic Judgements
Very often people who appear to lack empathy or appear insensitive are not bad people or cruel, they are just used to processing information quickly without seriously contemplating their behaviour or the circumstances of other people deeply enough.
The human brain is set up with 2 systems to process all the vast sources of information it encounters daily, including social situations.
One of the systems is a fast, automatic system which is used to process information quickly and the other is a slower system which takes time and effort to process information. (6)
1. Humans are naturally “cognitive misers”
Humans are motivated to save their mental resources as thinking is cognitively very draining according to the cognitive miser theory.
As a result of this, we tend to process a lot of information quickly to protect our mental resources.
The downside of this is that we tend to make rash judgments about people and situations without giving them too much thought, which a large proportion of the time will be wildly inaccurate and can cause pain and offence to others. (2a,6)
2. Get off “auto-pilot”
Many people are on “auto-pilot” with their thoughts so it may be worth reflecting on your inner mental life and assessing whether you think deeply enough about how your attitudes and behaviour affect others.
If you rush to work in the morning for an important meeting it’s very easy to see a request for help from a homeless person to be an inconvenience and therefore become frustrated and angry and display a judgemental attitude towards them.
It is very common for many people to do this when they are self-absorbed in their bubbles.
At the heart of empathy is the ability to think deeply about the experiences and circumstances of other people rather than making quick assumptions about them. (6)
3. Build connections with other people
Make a conscious effort to build connections with people around you, it’s easy to focus on the differences, which tend to be obvious, but you may find you share similar interests and experiences with other people, and it is only by listening carefully to the stories of others that you can find this out.
If you do notice a similarity that you have in common with someone, do not be afraid to bring it to their attention and engage them in conversation. (2,8)
4. Get out of your comfort zone
It may also be a worthwhile exercise to speak to strangers, whether this is in bars, libraries, railway stations or coffee shops and get to know them to gain an idea of what is going on in their lives.
This may involve stepping outside of your comfort zone, but it is by engaging in self-development exercises and challenging yourself that helps people to grow and improve aspects of themselves.
You could challenge yourself and speak to people whom you feel you frequently tend to judge negatively for example:
- Homeless people
- A person outside your age group
- A person that does a different job to you (e.g. teacher, police, estate agent)
- Someone with strong religious beliefs and practices
- People from another country
- People with a disability or mental health condition
You may find after listening to them that your views about them are inaccurate.
5. Connect with social action/injustice movements.
Becoming aware of causes that other people believe in that you are unaware of, and listening to their hardships and negative experiences can help you understand other perspectives that you may not have considered.
Reflecting on how you would feel if you were in this situation can be a helpful technique to improve your empathy.
6. Practice self-care
Understanding your own emotional needs can help you to understand others. It is worth taking a moment in your busy life and reflecting on how often you tend to be on autopilot and swept away by the hectic nature of everyday life.
Just putting on a brave face and pushing on every day without reflecting on how this affects you can lead to a build-up of tension and anxiety that you may fail to recognise until things come crashing down around you.
Not recognising this about yourself will make it unlikely that you will develop empathy for others. (1)
5 areas come under the umbrella of self-care that mental health professionals advise people to think about to restore balance to their lives and protect their mental health.
These 5 areas are:
- Physical self-care – Rest, sleep and diet.
- Social self-care – Building and maintaining healthy, meaningful social connections.
- Mental self-care – Become adept at managing their thoughts, engaging in meaningful activities and recognising stress.
- Emotional self-care – Freely their expressing emotions and setting clear physical and psychological boundaries in their relationships.
- Spiritual self-care – Attending and seeking support from church groups and engaging in spiritual practices. (1)
People Who May Lack Empathy Include:
There are some people who because of their genetic disposition may find it challenging to be empathic, including:
- People diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
- Individuals with psychopathic and narcissistic tendencies are very often because of the way their brain is wired.
Technological advances have enabled brain images to reveal that there is evidence of “abnormal” wiring in the amygdala part of the brain of psychopaths.
This is an area of the brain responsible for recognising and processing the emotions of other people.
(1) Anna Freud National Centre (2022) Self-care is about the things we can do to look after our mental health. available@ Self Care, Anxiety, Depression, Coping Strategies | On My Mind | Anna Freud Centre
(2) Ciarimicoli, A., Ketcham, K. (2000) The Power of Empathy: A practical guide to creating intimacy, self-understanding and lasting love. Piatkus Publishers.
(2a) Crisp, R. & Turner, R. (2007) Essential Social Psychology. SAGE Publications. London
(3) Hough, M. (2014) Counselling Skills and Theory: Fourth Edition. Hodder Education Group.
(3a) Goleman. D. (1995) Emotional Intelligence. Why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam books. The USA.
(4) Gross, M. (2020) The Science of Mind and Behaviour. Hodder Education Group.
(5) Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever You Go, There You Are. Piatkus. GB.
(6) Moss, A, Dyer, K. (2010) The Psychology of addictive behaviour. Palgrave MacMillan. Basingstoke
(7) Williams, M., Penman, D. (2011) Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Piatkus. GB
(8) Wiseman, T. (1996) A Concept Analysis of empathy. Journal of Advanced Nursing. June 1996. available@https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2648.1996.12213.x