Empathy Definition & Ways to Increase Your Empathy
Have you ever been told to “put yourself in someone’s shoes”, or “look at it from another person’s point of view”? These are simply other ways of saying that you should try to understand what another person is feeling, and why they are doing what they do. In other words, these are ways of showing empathy.
A straightforward empathy definition is the experience of understanding another person’s condition or circumstance from their perspective. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. It is trying to feel what they are feeling, and getting an understanding of why they are feeling it.
In this article, we will show you 1) empathy definition and how it is different from sympathy, 2) where empathy comes from, 3) the types of empathy, 4) why empathy is super important, and 5) how to increase and develop your empathy.
EMPATHY DEFINITION & HOW IT IS DIFFERENT FROM SYMPATHY
Many use “empathy” and “sympathy” interchangeably, thinking they are one and the same. Unfortunately, they are not. Let us try to distinguish one from the other.
Empathy involves being able to understand and even feel the emotions of others. Sympathy is simply feeling compassion for others, without necessarily knowing how they feeling.
Take the example of a manager with a subordinate suffering through a period where his family members have fallen ill. A sympathetic manager will express words of comfort and reassurance to his subordinate and stop there. An empathic manager on the other hand will feel as if he is the one facing the problem, perhaps because he has gone through a similar experience before, or he imagined himself to be in the same situation.
Sympathy involves understanding the experience or circumstances surrounding the experience of others. In empathy, understanding is on a deeper, more personal level.
WHERE EMPATHY COMES FROM
According to experts in human behavior, empathy is innate in every person, and their first manifestations are seen during infancy. Newborns’ common reaction when they hear other newborn’s cries is to do the same. This is viewed as their way of empathizing with each other.
As the baby grows from infancy to childhood, their level of empathy also increases or grows. Development of empathy is said to be directly affected by several factors:
- Early childhood experiences, which largely involves child-rearing and raising practices of parents or adult guardians of their children or wards. Experiences that have an impact, including traumatic ones, tend to have the biggest effect on one’s level of empathy.
- Environment and culture, which include education and exposure to various fields and disciplines, as well as people or figures of authority. Even the norms and customs unique to a culture of a certain country will also impact how a person views others.
- Empathic behavior models, the most obvious of which are the parents of the child themselves. A child’s capacity for empathy is almost often shaped or molded by what he sees in the behavior of his parents.
TYPES OF EMPATHY
There are two general classifications of empathy:
This pertains to the feelings and sensations that people get in response to others’ emotions or feelings. This is often described as “mirroring” others feelings, emotions or actions. A good example would be a person feeling tremendous amounts of stress when they see another exhibiting anxiety, fear or deep depression. A person who easily tears up when watching a sad movie or television show demonstrates strong affective empathy.
Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, refers to how one switches perspectives in order to identify, understand and share others’ emotions or feelings. It involves actually knowing what others want, think, believe, or even care about.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EMPATHY
Human relationships are an integral aspect of our lives. We are all, in one way or another, connected, and these relationships have to be sustained. Empathy is one of the ingredients towards building, maintaining and strengthening human relationships. Therefore, it is safe to say that empathy improves relationships and, consequently, helps one achieve greater success and an overall feeling of well-being and happiness.
Both in your professional and personal life, “people skills” are said to be very important. Many interpersonal skills have been identified as must-haves, but empathy is often overlooked. This is a bit disappointing, considering how empathy is actually one of the most important skills that one must possess in order to achieve greater success, both professionally and personally.
- Empathy encourages people to perform acts of charity and heroism. Those with higher levels of empathy are more likely to go out of their way to help others who are in need, even at the risk of their own comfort or self-interest. It encourages acts of selflessness from people, even resulting to heroic and, to a certain extent, self-sacrificing acts.
- Empathy reduces the level of negative emotions or ill feelings towards other people. Racism and various other prejudices are decreased when people are more able to empathize with people of different cultures, nationalities, beliefs or some other affiliation or grouping. Incidents of bullying, aggression and violence are also reduced when people display more empathy towards weaker ones.
- Empathy promotes equality. People will start to act and think more “in the spirit of fairness”. Fights against inequality are often grounded on empathy, with the advocates promoting the idea of reaching out to the less fortunate ones, or those who belong to marginalized and stigmatized groups.
- Empathy improves workplace relationships and processes. There are hierarchies even in the workplace, and if empathy is demonstrated in this setting, it will result in a more harmonious and peaceful working environment, while improving productivity of the workers.
Empathy in One’s Personal Life
Personal relationships often define who we are as a person. How we interact with others on a personal level speaks volumes about our identity and defines our personality. Just by observing how a person interacts with another, we can tell a lot about their personal traits and characteristics, as well as their strengths and weaknesses.
Take, for example, the relationship between partners in a marriage. The marriage becomes strengthened when the partners are more able to understand each others’ emotions and thoughts. Intimacy becomes deeper due to this better understanding, and the overall satisfaction with the relationship is greatly enhanced. Conflicts, arguments and differences in opinions are also easier to settle when both are willing to look at issues from each other’s perspectives.
Empathy at Work
Professional relationships are just as fragile as personal relationships. Our productivity and how we view our work and professional life in general are greatly affected by how we view the people we encounter at work and, at the same time, how they view us.
Empathy also plays a role in one’s professional life. An employee displaying empathy for a co-worker is likely to remain in a good light among everyone at work, so conflicts, arguments and bad vibes are avoided at work. Managers are also encouraged to demonstrate empathy towards their subordinates. This will command their respect and motivate them to turn in better results in their assigned tasks.
Businesses and organizations are certainly not exempt from cultivating empathy, since it is seen as one of the “key survival skills” in business. Empathy is closely associated with leadership and teamwork – two elements of a successful business or organizational structure.
EMPATHY AS A SKILL
Browse several articles about empathy and take note at how it is defined. Some describe it as an art (the “art of seeing the world in the way someone else sees it”), an ability (the “ability to sense other people’s emotions and imagine what they are feeling or thinking”) and a capacity (the “capacity to understand or feel what another being is experiencing”).
Empathy has also been described as a skill. This means that it can be learned, acquired, and honed. In short, you can teach yourself to have more empathy. In order to teach yourself empathy and become more compassionate, you have to:
- Understand yourself: You cannot begin to understand other people if you do not first understand yourself. Have empathy for yourself, and you will be better equipped to have empathy for others. How can you expect to understand others when you cannot understand why you are feeling or thinking the way you are. Of course, understanding comes with acceptance. Once you have understood yourself, and accepted your emotions, then you can move on towards understanding others.
- Understand others: This is the difficult part of the whole process of teaching yourself empathy. It takes a deep level of commitment and whole lot of practice until such time that you can say that you are able to gain an understanding of how others feel or think, and why they act the way they do.
- Practice nonverbal empathy: This comes after understanding others. This time, you will be better able to interact and communicate with them in nonverbal ways. Sometimes, more is said when less words are spoken. Nonverbal communication is another skill that will be learned through time by those who are able to demonstrate empathy.
Here is an interesting talk from the Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Riess, on the power of empathy:
HOW TO INCREASE YOUR EMPATHY
We have already established that it is in our nature to have empathy. We were born with it. Unfortunately, there are people who have less empathy than others.
The good thing about empathy is that, since we are already in possession of it, all that is left to do is to improve or increase it. Many suggestions have been given on how empathy can be nurtured, and some of them are tackled in greater detail below.
Pay more attention.
Sometimes, we focus too much on ourselves, or on our immediate environment, that we fail to see what is beyond or out there. Be aware and mindful of your environment and the people in it. This will heighten your senses and make it easier for you to identify the areas where empathy is most needed. When conversing with people, pay heed to even the slightest visual clues and voice changes. Even the indicator words spoken must not be taken lightly, because they may be saying more than they seem.
This also means that you have to be more observant of what goes on around you. Put those listening skills to good use. Do not just hear, but listen and actually make an effort to make sense of what you are hearing. For many people, listening is a skill that is difficult to hone, because it often requires a lot of patience and tolerance against distractions.
Once you listen, you have to truly listen to the meaning of the words, and not just the surface meaning. The context within which words are spoken vary greatly depending on a lot of circumstances and if you do not listen well enough, it is easy to interpret a perfectly innocent and valid question for a malicious and insulting one.
There is nothing wrong with asking questions, provided they make sense. Highly empathic people are almost always very curious about others, even if they are strangers. Of course, some may say this is tantamount to being nosy, so you have to be able to know how to draw a line between being curious out of empathy and being intrusive about it.
Your curiosity should be enough to bring you out of your comfort zone, which then exposes you to a wider “world”, so to speak. By broadening your horizons, you are given more room to nurture your empathy.
Some of the most empathic people are excellent conversationalists and, to be a good conversationalist, you should have an openness, or the willingness to share part of yourself. Somewhere, it was said that empathy is a two-way street, just like communication. You cannot expect to get something without parting with anything.
Say what you feel, and say it out loud. Being an active listener is not going to be enough. People often open up to others because part of them wants to hear some words of comfort or consolation. Maybe they are even seeking advice or helpful suggestions and are not even aware of it. Simple phrases such as “I understand” and “I get it”, or “Of course you feel that way” and “that is perfectly natural” will go a long way in making someone feel better, and improving your relationship with them.
Use your imagination.
Put yourself in other people’s shoes, figuratively. Imagine how you would feel if roles were reversed and you were the one experiencing a certain situation instead of that other person. How will you react? How will you handle it? Put your imagination to work. There is an adage that goes, “you can never truly know someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes”. This means that, unless you try to picture yourself in their position, and consider things from their point of view, you will never know what they are thinking or feeling.
Studies have shown that people who have an inclination for reading literature, particularly literary fiction, develop more sensitivity. They are more capable of exploring imaginary worlds and crossing boundaries between reality and make-believe.
Walk in their shoes.
Or you can take it more literally. Try spending a day with them, shadowing their every move, and getting a front seat to what actually happens.
Avoid being too judgmental.
If you are quick to judge people and you jump to conclusions even before getting all the facts, you will not be able to improve your empathy. Do not be a cynic and assume that everyone deserves what they get, at least until you have all the facts.
People are often too quick to attach labels or a stigma to certain groups because of generalizations formulated from one or a couple of what should be considered as isolated incidents. The tendency is to lump them in one group with a common identifying trait or characteristic, making it hard to empathize with them. Do not be one of those who make these generalizations. Always remember that, before they are part of a group, they are still individuals, and that is how you should start viewing them.
Cultivate an interest in music.
Music is an excellent booster of empathy, since it can appeal directly to one’s emotions. Various musical-related activities have been employed by professionals in an effort to cultivate empathy in younger people, particularly children. For instance, psychologists claim that musical games can accomplish exactly that in young children.
Adults also turn to music for various reasons, one of which is to regain a sense of calmness and serenity. People who are calm and serene are more capable of sharing empathy.
Open yourself up to pain.
You will never be able to show empathy if you are averse to witnessing pain, and even experiencing it. If you avoid seeing sights of suffering and pain, how will you acquire credibility when delivering words of comfort? You will simply be expressing sympathy then.
Open your eyes to the pain and suffering that goes on around you. This will make you more aware, heighten your sensitivity and, consequently, increase your empathy.
Monitor your progress.
See how you are doing in your efforts to increase your empathy. Has it improved your personal relationships with friends and family? Has it improved your working relationship with your bosses and co-workers? Did it bring about good results at work? By monitoring your progress, you will be able to tell if you need to work on your empathy more.