How to Develop Empathy in Relationships

Two twin baby girls are playing together and hugging at daycare

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Wherever people are working together, empathy is a force working like gravity to maintain order and cooperation. It’s the mechanism that allows us to understand and relate to others and is a necessary precursor to intimacy, trust, and belonging. And it is the feeling that makes it difficult to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that 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. Research does show that happier people tend to be less aware of negative emotions in others despite rating themselves as being more empathic. But we can practice empathy, regardless of what mood we’re in so that we create greater happiness for ourselves and others.

Here are the 3 key components of empathy, plus tips you can try with the people in your life.

Make Listening a Priority

Before we can connect with what someone else is feeling, we have to recognize what that feeling is. But how often do we really make listening deeply a priority in our conversations? When a good friend calls you and needs to vent about how stressful work has been or how tough things have been since her recent breakup, the emotion in their voice usually gets our attention pretty quickly. It gets harder when conversations are happening amidst distractions and with less obvious emotional weight. Empathy begins when we set the intention of listening for emotion.

One barrier most of us have to paying close attention to the emotion in others is the emotion going on front-and-center in ourselves. When we’re having a conversation and are looking only at our own feelings and how we can communicate them, we’re not leaving enough attention available to take in what’s going on at the other end.

Empathy-Building Strategy: Talk to strangers. Make it a point to begin conversations with people you meet and see across your day-to-day interactions. The clerk at the grocery store. The woman sitting next to you on the bus. While engaging in the conversation, pay particular attention to what that person is feeling. Notice body language cues. Tones of voice. Subtle shifts in energy. Manage both the distractions and your own feelings that could easily grab your attention and work on staying emotionally attuned throughout the conversation. 

Share Their Feelings

Once we recognize emotion in another person, empathy puts us 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 emotion 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 on "America’s Funniest Home Videos". When we become immersed in someone else’s grief, sadness, or irritation, we can not only stand next to them and console them with greater understanding, but we also send a message that we’re willing to take on a painful emotion so that they don’t have to go it alone.

Empathy-Building Strategy: Open up. Empathic connections are a two-way street. And while allowing yourself to fully take in another person’s emotion will enhance your relationships, you really dig your heels in when you are willing to be vulnerable to others. 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. And second, you gain more comfort negotiating 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.

Relieve Someone's Suffering by Taking Action

If empathy rests at sharing in negative emotion, happiness can suffer. When we feel deep sadness for victims of a natural disaster, we are getting closer to putting ourselves in their shoes. But we are not in their shoes, and that’s an important distinction. Just feeling someone else’s pain, while it may enhance a sense of belonging and being understood if communicated, doesn’t maximize our opportunity to enhance wellbeing. The advantage of knowing what another person is going through is that we can better identify what they need. And because empathy means we’re adopting the emotion but not the tough situation that gave rise to it, we are usually in a more empowered place to help. In other words, for empathy to be most effective and maximize well-being, we have to feel both the pain of another and also the optimism that we are not as pained and can do something about it.

In a study where participants watched another person receive electric shocks and were given a choice to help her 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 allows those participants to feel the pain of the shock enough that they want to help, but not so much that they are reluctant to take it on themselves.

Empathy-Building Strategy: Take action. When we take on another person’s painful emotions, we need to hold onto ourselves enough to see that we are better able to relieve the pain than they are. Whether that means consoling a friend, buying a small gift for someone who needs it or donating to causes helping natural disaster victims, we make empathy effective when we use it as motivation to do something. 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. And the beautiful thing about empathy is that when others begin to flourish, so do we.

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