5 strategies for showing empathy

If you’ve turned on the news lately, you might get the feeling that the world is a harsh and indifferent place. Combine that with increasing divisions, as social media puts us all a click away and yet worlds apart, and it’s easy to think that human compassion and connection has disappeared entirely. 

We haven’t forgotten how to show empathy – but with all that’s going on in the world, we may need a reminder.

Learning how to show empathy can change your life

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What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand others’ feelings and show compassion toward them. It’s different from sympathy, although both involve emotions. Showing empathy is more than saying something nice or sending a card when something bad happens to someone. Think of sympathy as feeling sorry for someone, while empathy means feeling sorry with them. You can vividly imagine the other person’s experiences and emotions. 

Empathetic responses are especially powerful because they involve three parts of the brain working together: the emotional part understands others’ feelings; the cognitive part is able to understand what they are thinking; and the somatic part causes you to physically feel what they are feeling. You feel empathy not just in your mind, but in your heart and soul.

Why is showing empathy important?

showing empathy

Empathy is an essential part of emotional intelligence, or the ability to build relationships – and in life, relationships are everything. You can have all the money and power in the world, but you’ll never feel fulfilled without love and connection, two of our deepest human needs. Learning how to show empathy will help you nurture the relationships that are such a necessary part of the human experience. 

Empathy can help you excel in business by building trust, creating lasting networking bonds and making you a better leader. It will help you create passionate relationships and even make you a better friend. Most of all, unlocking how to be empathetic makes the world a better, more compassionate and more forgiving place. We could all use more compassion in our lives.

How to show empathy

Showing empathy is a vital part of what makes us human. It comes more naturally to some people than others, based on the wiring of our brains and how we were raised, but anyone can learn how to be empathetic – and reap the benefits.

1. Listen 

A friend has come to you with terrible news. What do you do? It’s natural to want to fix the things that are hurting our loved ones – but chances are they just need you to listen. Deep listening is a life skill that will serve you well, whether you want to deepen your bonds with your partner, work on your leadership or build rapport with others. Using eye contact, being fully present and giving nonverbal feedback are important keys to how to be empathetic.

 how to be empathetic

2. Change your words 

It’s tempting to respond to bad news with cliches like “Everything happens for a reason” or “It’s a blessing in disguise.” Yet in reality, these responses aren’t helpful – and can even diminish how the other person feels. Change your words to acknowledge their pain with phrases like “That sounds hard” or “I’m sorry you’re going through this.” Don’t offer solutions or advice unless you’re asked. Showing empathy often means saying nothing at all. 

3. Keep the focus on them 

When we want to relate to someone, we often fall back on using “I” statements and relating similar things that have happened to us. While this type of communication has its place in relationships, it isn’t necessary to showing empathy. Talking about yourself can have the opposite effect – causing the other person to shut down. Remember, where focus goes, energy flows. Keep the energy flowing in the right direction by keeping the focus off yourself. 

stress and relationships

4. Understand their needs 

We’ve all heard the phrase “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” but if you really want to know how to show empathy, you’ll have to truly understand their perspective. When you want to brush someone off or give in to negative emotions, instead remember the Six Human Needs, which drive all of our decisions. It’s likely at least one of their needs – certainty, significance, variety, love/connection, growth and contribution – isn’t being met. When you determine how to meet those needs, you’ll be the master of empathetic responses.

5. Find common values

We all have different values and beliefs, such as loyalty, honesty, positivity and creativity. But there are also common human values that most people share across cultures, ages and races. These values allow us to relate to the emotions of others, even when we can’t relate to their exact experience. We all understand the loss of a loved one, the pain that relationships can cause or the fear of failure in our careers or personal lives. Use these common experiences to discover how to be empathetic.

Ready to improve your life by showing empathy?

Learning how to show empathy can help you in every area of your life. Take the Wheel of Life Assessment to determine where to focus your energy.