Updated February 9, 2019
Do you want to improve the relationships in your life? Getting along with others and forging strong bonds is something that comes easily to some while others may struggle. There are a number of aspects that make up interpersonal relations, along with factors that affect the dynamics of those relationships. Being able to empathize with others, or feel what others are feeling, is a major contributor to formation and success of relationships.
What is Empathy?
Empathy involves being able to relate to the experience or feelings of another. It’s the bridge that is needed to cross over to compassion in which those insightful emotions then translate into beneficial action. Empathy is a necessary component in facilitating social bonds and healthy relationships. Learning how to put yourself in their shoes can increase the number of successful relationships you develop and help you to maintain harmony within those connections.
Why Empathy Matters
Making empathy a proactive practice can lead to a number of life-enhancing benefits for you on a personal level. Empathy is the foundation of the “Golden Rule.” You need to be able to have an understanding of what others are feeling and to be able to actually imagine yourself in their situation in order to be able to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” By cultivating empathy, it’s more likely you will treat those around you in a thoughtful manner and be able to consider their needs. Empathy can also lead you to a clearer understanding of yourself and the way in which you come across to the outside world. Self-understanding is incredibly useful in navigating relationships. Being empathetic also facilitates improved management of interpersonal conflicts. It’s easier to compromise and come to a resolution between people when you have a potential understanding of another’s point of view.
Empathy makes you a desirable candidate in the workforce, as well. It gives you the ability to better respond to the needs of customers and helps to create positive relations with your colleagues. Empathy is definitely a quality needed in strong leaders. Having insight into the perspective of your team members can help you to be more persuasive and motivating, causing co-workers to feel you understand them, which leads to increased dedication on their part. Possessing the ability to infer what others are going through even helps you to deal with negative people, as you can remind yourself of the possible emotions behind their behavior.
Ways to Cultivate Empathy
1. Shift Your Focus
It’s easy to get caught up on our own issues in the fast pace of everyday life. Sometimes we do this to the extent that it can be detrimental to the ways in which we interact with the significant people in our lives. It’s okay to get caught up in your own issues once in a while. However, if you feel that you have become prone to a pattern of self-involvement at the expense of your interpersonal relations, you’ll need to take proactive action to make some big changes. Shifting your focus to others rather than yourself takes practice, but it will get easier. Start by making a concerted effort to ask about the welfare of at least one person each day and to listen to them with intention. In addition, if the person with whom you’re interacting gives you a simple one-word answer such as “Fine,” ask leading questions in an attempt to encourage them to elaborate. For example, you could enquire about a significant other in their life or ask how their studies are going. As long as there doesn’t appear to be resistance, take time to engage with them and give them your undivided attention.
2. Active Listening
One of the most effective ways to understand others better is to improve your listening skills. Most of us are familiar with the concept of active listening and actually paying attention to the person who is speaking instead of working to formulate your own response. This can be a difficult concept to employ, but taking steps to be mindful and remain in the moment when another is talking to you can go far toward understanding where they are coming from. Ask questions to gain more information if you feel you don’t quite grasp their intent.
3. Look for Nonverbal Cues
Another way to flex your empathy muscles is to watch for body language in your encounters with folks in your life. It’s easy to miss such things as a frown or a furrowed brow when we’re walking purposefully to our next destination or intent on our cell phone. Be more mindful of viewing your surroundings so that you’re more apt to notice significant signals in others. These things are easier to catch in one-on-one conversations, but can still be overlooked. Watch for crossed arms when talking to a co-worker. This could indicate they are closed off to what you’re saying. Glancing around might mean they’re in a hurry to leave or are bored. Congratulate yourself when you make an observation that you would probably have missed in the past.
4. Make It Relevant
It can be difficult to wrap your head around the experience of another, especially if you haven’t had such an experience in your own life. If you try hard enough, it’s likely you can think of a situation you’ve gone through that is similar. Thinking of things that are relevant to you doesn’t mean making the issue all about you. Taking the focus from another’s problem and placing it on yourself by saying things like, “I know exactly how you feel,” or “I don’t get why that even matters. I’d just let it go,” shows that you don’t understand what they’re going through and that you’re not really interested in doing so. Such an attitude can cause resentment on the part of the other person and destroy chances of coming together in the future. Instead, try to think of something in your own world that can compare. Don’t necessarily tell them about it. Again, remember this is their time, as they are the one suffering. However, by internally relating their problem to something you can personally understand, you’re eliciting feelings of solidarity and compassion within yourself. You can then make a statement or gesture that demonstrates your empathy such as a simple, “I’m so sorry. What can I do?” or by giving them a hug.
5. Be a Mirror
An effective technique used in psychology known as “reflection” can be used to demonstrate empathy and to increase connections between people. The way it works is to “reflect” back to someone the statement they just told you. Rather than simply rewording their statement, you’ll want to share with them the ways in which you think their current situation makes them feel. You might say to a friend who is complaining about her child’s poor school behavior, “It sounds like you’re frustrated by his lack of motivation in school. You’re probably also worried that he will get behind, causing him to continue to struggle.” Developing this kind of statement takes word on your part because it requires you to once again employ shared human experience to think about how you would feel if someone disappointed you in a similar way. The effort pays off because it takes you out of your own head, provides you with insight into the world of another and strengthens the connection between you through the exchange.
These are just a few strategies to improve your ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. With some practice, you’ll find empathy to be more natural and your relationships will be stronger.
Some Downsides of Empathy
Being an empathetic person is primarily a good thing, but there are some limitations to consider. An overabundance of empathy can cause us emotional distress, and focusing on these feelings often leads to inaction. You’re not doing any good for a situation by ruminating on its immensity. Sometimes we can be prone to focusing our empathy on people we know or individuals we personally encounter, but we find ourselves unable to extend that understanding to the greater population. This is problematic because it can cause us to become uncaring about the plight of the “other” or unknown.
Call to Action: Now that you have a more thorough understanding of how this quality can benefit your life and the ways to increase your ability to empathize, you can begin to look for ways to incorporate it in your day to day activities. You’ll soon see a more positive outlook on life and on your interactions with those around you.