How to Develop Empathy in Your Relationships

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Empathy is a powerful force that helps maintain social order and cooperation. It is the mechanism that allows people to understand and relate to others. Empathy is a necessary precursor to intimacy, trust, and belonging. It is also the feeling that makes it difficult to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others.

Empathic people experience a number of happiness benefits. Empathy often encourages altruistic behavior, and empathy-based kindness has been shown to increase cooperation and forgiveness, strengthen relationships, decrease aggression and judgment, and even improve mental and physical health.

Interestingly, research does show that happier people tend to be less aware of negative emotions in others despite rating themselves as being more empathic. However, it is important to practice empathy, regardless of the mood in order to create greater happiness for ourselves and others.

Practicing the key components of empathy can help you better understand and interact with people in your life.

Make Listening a Priority

Before you can connect with what someone else is feeling, you have to recognize what that feeling is. Listening is crucial—but not always easy.

When a good friend calls you and needs to vent about how stressful work has been or how tough things have been since their recent breakup, the emotion in their voice usually gets your attention pretty quickly. It gets harder when conversations are happening amidst distractions and with less obvious emotional weight.

Empathy begins when you set the intention of listening for emotion. Make an effort to notice the signals people are giving that can indicate what they are feeling.

Your own emotions can pose a significant barrier when it comes to noticing what others are feeling. When you are having a conversation and are looking only at your own feelings and how you can communicate them, you might not be leaving enough attention available to take in what’s going on at the other end. Making an effort to actively listen can help strengthen your emotional understanding and empathy.

Share Their Feelings

Once you recognize emotion in another person, empathy puts you squarely in that person’s shoes. Empathy is not feeling what you would feel in that situation; it is stepping beside yourself and adopting their emotions for a few moments.

Some research suggests that we succeed at this task by virtue of mirror neurons, or brain pathways that fire whether we’re experiencing the stimulus or we see someone else experience it.

Mirror neurons are responsible for getting your heart racing when you admire athletes running through a stadium at your favorite sporting event or making you recoil in pain when watching unfortunate blunders in a funny viral video.

When people become immersed in someone else’s grief, sadness, or irritation, this empathy can not only stand next to them and console them with greater understanding, but it also sends a message that they are willing to take on a painful emotion so that others don’t have to go it alone.

Make Yourself Vulnerable

Empathic connections are a two-way street. Allowing yourself to fully take in another person’s emotion can enhance your relationships, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable to others can amplify such connections.

When you share experiences of your own challenging emotions, like guilt, anxiety, and shame, you create opportunities for others to empathize with you.

Being vulnerable strengthens your own empathy in two ways. First, feeling the value of empathy when it’s reflected back to you can deepen your commitment to being empathic for others. You also gain more comfort navigating tough emotions in conversations with others.

It’s not easy to hold onto a conversation about painful emotions, but if you deliberately train this ability in yourself by taking advantage of the opportunities when you have an emotion to share, you’ll be better equipped for the receiving end.

Take Action and Offer Help

If empathy rests at sharing in negative emotion, happiness can suffer. When people feel deep sadness for victims of a natural disaster, they get closer to putting themselves in other people's shoes.

But just feeling someone else’s pain, while it may enhance a sense of belonging and being understood if communicated, doesn’t maximize the opportunity to enhance well-being. The advantage of knowing what another person is going through is that you can better identify what other people need.

Because empathy means that you are adopting the emotion but not the tough situation that gave rise to it, you are usually in a more empowered place to help.

For empathy to be most effective and maximize well-being, it is important to feel both the pain of another and also know that you are in a position to do something about it.

In a classic study where participants watched another person receive electric shocks and were given a choice to help the person by taking the remaining shocks themselves, people high in empathy were more likely to step in and help even when they could simply turn away and not watch anymore. Effective empathy allowed participants to feel the pain of the shock enough that they wanted to help, but not so much that they were reluctant to take it on themselves.

Empathy-Building Strategies

Improve your empathy by practicing the following on a regular basis. Over time, you will find that your ability to understand and relate to the emotions of others becomes stronger.

  • Talk to other people. Make it a point to begin conversations with people you meet and see across your day-to-day interactions. While engaging in the conversation, pay particular attention to what that person is feeling.
  • Notice body language cues. This can including tone of voice and subtle shifts in energy.
  • Focus on listening. Manage both the distractions and your own feelings that could easily grab your attention and work on staying emotionally attuned throughout the conversation. 
  • Take action. Recognize that you can do things, however small, to make a difference in someone else's life.

A Word From Verywell

Empathy not only allows you to understand others—it can also give you the motivation you need to make a difference. Whether that means consoling a friend, buying a small gift for someone who needs it, or donating to causes helping natural disaster victims, empathy becomes effective when you use it as motivation to do something about the problem.

When you see someone else going through a hard time, be sure to listen and share, but also clearly identify what you can do to help. The follow-through on empathy means initiating positive change for others. The beautiful thing about empathy is that when others begin to flourish, it improves your own life as well.

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