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Developing Empathy

I assume most of you are like me and spend time (probably too much time!) curiously exploring the rabbit hole of social media. And frankly, I don’t know why I spend so much time online. The vast amounts of negativity, shaming, and trolling that appear on the Internet are simply unparalleled. We know that this type of judgement doesn’t only happen online; we see this lack of empathy everywhere. Developing empathy for others is critical for success in both our personal and professional lives; empathy deeply affects how we communicate with others, build relationships, and navigate conflict.

Empathy is a term introduced in 1909 by English psychologist Edward Titchener as a translation of the German word “Einfühlung,” meaning “feeling into.” Today we commonly know empathy to mean a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his or her perspective, and second, sharing the person’s emotions, including his or her distress. We know that empathy is the gateway to compassion.

On the flip side, it’s easy to recognize what empathy isn’t. For example, we know that empathy is not shaming or blaming. It’s also not about sharing our own experiences. Have you ever told someone about a difficult experience you’ve had, only to hear that person respond with, “Well, when I went through that…” When we demonstrate empathy, our focus is on listening to the other person. So often we think we’re being empathetic when we try to fix a person’s problem or provide advice, when what the person really needs is a listening ear and someone to acknowledge his or her situation. Researcher Brene Brown reminds us that: “Rarely, if ever, does an empathetic response begin with ‘at least’… we do this because someone just shared something with us that’s incredibly painful, and we’re trying to silver line it.” For example, your co-worker confides in you, saying, “I didn’t get that big promotion” and we reply with, “Well, at least you have a good job—you’ll get the promotion next time.” We’re often just trying to make the other person feel better, when the reality is that rarely can a response make something better.

The best news is that empathy can be developed! Here are some tips for developing your empathy.

1. Know yourself

There’s no greater skill than self-awareness. When we recognize our emotions as they happen and understand how we respond to different people and situations, we’re more likely to manage our emotions better and display self-control, patience, and openness (and we’re less likely to make regrettable comments on the internet). Ask yourself, “Why do I do the things I do?” Seek out personality assessments like DiSC, Myers-Briggs, or the Enneagram. Ask for feedback on your actions. Wake up to yourself! As Peg Streep of Psychology Today writes, “The extent of your own emotional intelligence—your ability to know what you’re feeling, to accurately label and name different emotions with precision, and to use your emotions to inform your thinking—will make it easier or harder for you to be empathetic.”

2. Be an attentive listener

It’s getting harder and harder to listen as we’re bombarded by notifications daily, hourly, and by the minute! The first step in being a better listener is to remove distractions to stay focused on the other person. Consider turning off notifications on your smartwatch, silence your phone, and put it in a pocket or purse. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings—you could say, “I can certainly understand why you feel that way,” “I’m so sorry,” or “I’m not sure what to say right now, but I’m so glad you told me.” Avoid interrupting the other person; let the other person finish his or her sentence before jumping in with your comments. Stay engaged by providing eye contact, positive body language, and asking questions.

3. Read more fiction

A 2014 study by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, found that exposure to narrative fiction can improve someone’s ability to understand what other people are thinking, feeling, and doing. He said, “When you’re engaged in reading a story, our brain automatically puts yourself in the character’s shoes…the reader learns life lessons from how he or she personally experiences the journey of the protagonist and other characters in the story.” Reading can improve our perceptions of other people and open our minds to different ways of being, thinking, and doing. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media, try opening a book!

Empathy improves our communication, builds trust, helps us navigate complexities and sustain meaningful relationships. And the good news is that empathy can be learned! Work on developing these skills and you’ll build a reputation for being caring, trustworthy, and open-minded.  

Libby Ehrig is a Training Consultant at ATW Training Solutions. She can be reached at libby@atwtraining.com or by calling 515.727.0731.


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