How to Develop Empathy

Empathy:  Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.

Have you ever been in the middle of an argument with someone (your partner, child, boss, friend, etc.) and wished that you could get inside her head and understand what the h-e-double hockeysticks she’s thinking? Well, guess what? You can! Developing empathy will enable you to experience that argument from the other person’s perspective and understand what she means and how she feels as opposed to focusing solely on what she says. (Because we’ve all said things in an argument that we didn’t really mean, haven’t we?)

Do you remember the character Deanna Troi from Star Trek? Deanna was an empath. She could sense the true meaning behind the words of others. Captain Picard often brought Deanna to meetings with him because she could detect dishonesty and deception. You can learn to do this too! We tend to think of this skill as some kind of supernatural power, but it’s not. Empathy is something anyone can learn and use to better their lives. Here’s how:

  • Pay attention to others’ body language. Does the person you’re speaking with have his arms crossed over his chest? Crossed arms are a self-protective posture which indicates feelings of anxiety and vulnerability. Are his shoulders hunched? This indicates tension and fear. Body language is a language like any other–like English or Spanish or sign language. You can learn to interpret it. Do some research to figure out what some common postures can mean.
  • Pay attention to your own body language. Have you ever noticed that, when you see someone else yawn, you yawn too? Some scientists attribute this phenomenon to “mirror neurons“, which have been found to respond to the actions and body language of others. If your body language is communicating hostility and resistance, the person you’re speaking with will experience those feelings. Make an effort to keep your body language neutral–shoulders relaxed, face calm and smooth, etc,
  • Listen to feelings, not to words. You have to work late for the third night in a row. You call your husband to tell him that he’ll need to pick up the kids and get dinner ready on his own… again. He responds, “Fine. I guess work is more important than your family.” It would be pretty tempting to fire back with a defensive comment in response to his sarcasm, but focus on the feelings behind that statement. He might be feeling resentful, abandoned, frustrated, and lonely. Responding to feelings rather than his words will enable you to identify the real issue and respond appropriately and compassionately. State those feelings back to him: “You seem to be feeling frustrated and resentful. I understand. I’m frustrated too. Let’s talk tonight about how we can make this situation better for both of us.”
  • Become a mirror. This exercise is INCREDIBLY insightful if you’re having trouble reading body language. Try mimicing someone’s posture and inflection (you may not want to try this in front of them) and see how it makes you feel. As a matter of fact, try it right now. Stand up, hunch your shoulders, cross your arms over your chest, and frown. How do you feel? Tense? Frustrated? Mirroring another person’s body language, tone of voice, and speech patterns allows you to experience her emotions for yourself. 

Does empathy come naturally to you, or do you (like me) have to work at it? Do you use empathy at work? At home? With your friends?

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