What Is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and feel another’s emotions. People with high empathy are able to relate to others’ experiences, mirror another person’s emotions, and sense what others around them are feeling.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

15 Habits To Be More Empathetic

Many people want to know how to be an empathetic listener or understand how to be empathetic when texting. Practice these 15 habits to develop your empathy skills!

Be curious

"In the end, it's the people who are curious who change the world." - NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON

Kids are often curious by nature, but adults can lose this trait because it takes them outside their comfort zone. Curiosity can expand your mind and strengthen your empathy in life. When someone or something interests you, don’t ignore your childlike impulse… try being curious and asking about it.

Action Tip: Ask someone an interesting conversation starter the next time you’ve run out of something to say.

And for more on curiosity, check out Bob Borchers’s TEDx Talk!

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Pay attention

Practicing empathy includes eliminating distractions (cell phone, work emails, social media) when you’re listening to something or—better yet—someone. The respect you show can pay dividends because, often, people remember whether you give them your full attention.

Action Tip: Not a great listener? No worries! Practice your attention skills by paying attention to body language during your next convo.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Be courageous

Attempts at being empathetic go beyond brief chit-chats with strangers. Of course, it takes courage to talk to a stranger, but it builds empathy when you seek to understand another person or another point of view.

Action Tip: Get your dose of courage on! Try striking up a random conversation the next time you’re standing in line. You could even add this task to your kindness list.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

See similarities

There is greater power in empathy vs. apathy (lack of concern for others) to overcome differences or extreme prejudices. Take Claiborne Paul Ellis, a former top White supremacist, and Ann Atwater, a Black activist, who met as enemies, worked with empathy towards a common goal, and became lifelong friends.

Action Tip: Got someone you dislike in mind, like an overly chatty coworker? Try listing out their good traits to see their positives!

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Understand their life

The best way to define how sympathy vs. empathy vs. compassion feels to you is to put yourself directly into someone else’s experience. So don’t just pity a homeless person. Instead, spare some time to talk with them and learn their way of life. It’s called “walking a mile in their shoes” for a reason, and it’s a rewarding way to practice empathy.

Action Tip: Try the following exercise with a friend or partner to better understand how others feel!

↑ Table of Contents ↑

The empathy stance

You can show empathy even through body language! If your body is closed-off, your mind may subconsciously close itself off from others, too. To appear actively empathetic, lean forward slightly, leave your arms uncrossed, and make eye contact to show interest.

Action Tip: Read up on the best open body language cues you can use to build rapport.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Judgment-free zone

Listening is a habit that’s easier to master when you’re not judging or assuming as you listen to someone. When a person feels freer to open up to you, you can also encourage them by saying, “go on,” or, “and then?”

Action Tip: Try to avoid judgmental phrases such as, “That looks…” or “I can’t believe you…” instead, replace them with open phrases like, “What made you…” or “What do you think about…”

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Watch what’s not said

Someone who is too afraid to speak will not, but silence can speak volumes. It isn’t too difficult to spot a tense person who doesn’t look you in the eyes. Don’t assume they want to be ignored.

Action Tip: Ask them to tell you how they’re feeling, and learn to spot anxious cues or if they are lying in their response.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Avoid absolutes

Try avoiding saying things like “It’s better to be positive!” or “People like it when you smile!” Your pep talk might mean well, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, and some people can’t fake happiness.

Action Tip: Tailor your advice. For example, if you’ve got a big client to impress, you can say to your team member, “Try to be as accommodating as you can,” if they are not the super-positive type.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Social media thumbs-up

If you’ve ever used social media to gain more followers or likes, you’re not alone. Harness the possibilities of social media to make empathetic connections, foster understanding, and stimulate more caring.

Action Tip: If you’re using social media, try reaching out beyond your social circle. Leave a random comment of connection or thumbs up for people you don’t normally interact with.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Your competitive advantage is imagination

Empathy increases your sense of community when you care about and feel for other people, but you can also use empathy to win. Imagine you are your competitor when you’re in a power struggle in life or at work. Understanding their motives can give you a leg up!

Action Tip: Put yourself in your competitor’s shoes. If you’re Coca-Cola, for example, what might Red Bull’s problems be? List out or brainstorm to gain a deeper understanding!

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Refer to yourself the “we” way

Practice empathy by changing up your pronouns. When you say “we” instead of “me,” it’s easier to think of other people’s feelings and behaviors. You’re learning to speak the essence of empathy!

Action Tip: The next time you’re in a group setting and have a goal, try incorporating others! You can even simply ask for others’ thoughts on how to solve the problem!

Check out this TEDx Talk on the power of “we”!

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Keep calm in the silence

Too often, people get awkward with pauses in conversation, so they interrupt or offer advice. Silence isn’t the enemy and thinking before speaking can show your empathy.

Action Tip: Need to give a thoughtful answer? You can simply reply (or text) with “Let me think about that for a moment…” A lot of people may even be thankful that you’d spend time giving a thoughtful answer rather than an automatic one.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Vulnerability takes the most courage of all

It requires bravery to reveal yourself and speak the truth. Empathy is a two-way street, and there’s more power in it when you’re also vulnerable enough to share.

https://youtu.be/uIaY0l5qV0c?t=21

Action Tip: Be a sharer! If someone shared a piece of personal information about themself, try sharing one back to them. They may appreciate that you’re willing to open up.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

How To Be More Empathetic in a Relationship

It’s not difficult to take relationships for granted. Whether it’s immediate family, a spouse, or lifelong friends, it might be easy to assume that they’ll always be there with minimal effort on your part. 

But that’s not always true! Relationship empathy is a necessary tool to keep relationships healthy and strong… and guess where you should begin?

↑ Table of Contents ↑

It starts with you

You can listen wholeheartedly to other people’s problems in an empathetic manner, but the genuine power in empathy comes when you respect and love yourself. 

Researchers have proven how devastating self-criticism is to our ability to connect and form lasting relationships with other people. So here are 3 ways to stop it:

  1. When you start to worry about your failures, complain that you’re not good enough, judge yourself against others, or get angry or envious, catch yourself and try reaffirming something positive. Try a positive affirmation if you don’t know where to begin.
  2. Practice mindful meditation. Meditation has been proven to increase the gray matter in your brain, or the stuff that enables people to control movement, memory, and emotions.
  3. Talk to yourself kindly. Congratulate yourself on a good presentation at work or a great meal you made. Were you kind to a stranger? Remember their gratitude.

Once you begin treating yourself with respect and eliminating the negativity, you can look at your closest relationships with fresher eyes.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

It takes trust and loyalty

As life goes on, our relationships often change. We’re not meant to be the same people we were years ago, and sometimes we want to change our lives for the better. 

That’s why loyalty and trust are essential in how to be empathetic in a relationship. When a person wants to change and become their best self, they need to be supported and know others will stick around.

Trust and loyalty works the best as a two-way street. When you support a person and commit to the long term, they should do the same for you. Trust and loyalty are your relationship empathy building blocks!

For an awesome breakdown on how to build trust, check out this article.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

It takes compassion

When you build your empathy, you become skilled in understanding other people’s feelings, and you’re going in the right direction. The next step is compassion. 

Compassion means caring. You care about someone who is struggling, and after you listen, you not only feel the issues they are experiencing, you want to help them.

Compassion is understanding someone and helping them in a way that makes them better, stronger, healthier people. Here’s the formula for compassion:

Empathy + Action = Compassion

Let’s put that into an example:

  • You understand your partner wants to quit smoking (empathy)
  • You find a clinic that will help them stop (action)
  • You attend sessions together and go for walks when an urge hits them (compassion).

When your compassion sees someone through to achieving a goal, changing a bad habit, and becoming better people, that may increase your self-satisfaction, and you’ll feel richer in life.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

How to be empathetic when texting

Here are some important ways to use empathy on a messaging platform:

  • Be timely.  If you receive a text from someone who sounds like they need support, reach out as quickly as possible.
  • Be active.  Active “listening” is a great empathy habit to use when you’re reading a text (sometimes, between the lines). Text a reply with a simple acknowledgment and mirror their feelings in your response.
  • Offer spoken words.  Someone might find it hard to talk, so they message you instead. Hearing a voice is always more human and personal. If you can, arrange a phone call or video chat, or simply send a voice message so they have a deeper human interaction.
  • Know emojis.  Emojis may seem like silly symbols in general text conversations, but science has proven that emojis can influence emotions and make you appear more personable. So check out how to use emojis in the best ways possible!
  • Be understanding. What if you looked at a text like this?

“A fired who has dylesixa desrbieed to me how she eerpcexenis rdaeing. She can read, but it taeks a lot of creatnnoitocn. and the Itrtees smees to “jump aruond”,. I remibmeeed rniadeg aoubt tipmcylyogea. Wduoln’t it be psbslioe to do it ietlvrciatney on a wibstee with Jpsiacarvt? Sure it wloud. Feel like miankg a bikoeorakmt of tihs or soinetmhg? Frok it on ghitub.”

That’s what the written word looks like for people with the learning disability dyslexia, and it’s common: Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Spielberg, Cher, Octavia Spencer, Keira Knightley, Anderson Cooper, Jamie Oliver, and Sir Richard Branson are among the celebs who have succeeded despite their dyslexia.

It’s common for anyone to misunderstand a text, whether or not they have a learning disability. So keep your mind open to this, and take care when texting. It’s among the most empathetic things you can do!

↑ Table of Contents ↑

How to be more empathetic at work

Empathy is a powerful tool when used in business. Learning how to be more empathetic at work will strengthen work relationships—but you can also imaginatively utilize empathic techniques to triumph over the competition.

In this video clip, the former CMO of Hyatt Hotels discusses the use of competitive empathy in re-establishing their hotel brand over disrupters like Airbnb and Expedia:

An empathy map is another popular search term for those wanting to learn how to be more empathetic at work. Let’s discuss what an empathy map is and how it can help you succeed.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

What is an empathy map?

While empathy is a trait you develop in yourself, an empathy map is a collaborative tool gaining popularity among business teams. For example, empathy mapping is often done during team sessions to drive marketing campaigns. 

During empathy mapping sessions, a whiteboard serves as the blank template. You can use a physical whiteboard or a digital one like Miro. Team members collate user personas, sales data, and target market insights to populate their empathy map. 

The team deliberates the thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and concerns of users. Here is what an empathy map session’s questions might look like: 

  • What feedback would the user hear from their circles of influence (friends, family, coworkers) on them using a product?
  • What would a user say or do when using a product, and how does that influence others publicly or privately?
  • What do users gain by using a product?
  • What pain points or fears result from using a product?

Ideally, all team members record their thoughts and present their strategies. This information is recorded on the empathy map and used to construct more empathetic marketing campaigns!

↑ Table of Contents ↑

How to be an empathetic leader

Historically, people look to the extraordinary skills in spiritual leaders like Mahatma Ghandi, who used his empathy to address conflict and promote tolerance. In the late 1940s, Ghandi fought religious prejudice in India with these words: “I am a Muslim and a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew and so are all of you.”

"I am a Muslim and a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew and so are all of you." - MAHATMA GANDHI

Racial intolerance is an unfortunate blight on humanity that continues to rear its ugly head well into the 21st century. In the early 1970s, Claiborne P. Ellis changed his mindset from deeply ingrained hatred against Blacks to a human rights activist working in partnership with Ann Atwater, a highly respected activist in the Black community. 

Ellis and Atwater were co-chairs of a committee tackling racial tension in their local school district. During initially tense conversations, Ellis and Atwater quickly realized they shared more similarities (poverty, low self-esteem) than differences.

Ellis had been a top-tier member of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan party. At the final committee meeting that he attended with Atwater, Ellis tore up his Ku Klux Klan membership card in front of 1,000 people. 

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Become an empathetic leader today

Do you have what it takes today to become an empathetic leader? Many people would say no, but when you imagine yourself in the future, you can reinvent yourself and realize your greater leadership potential.

Here are a few steps you can take:

  • Have an inner conversation with the person you want to become. Are they kind and compassionate? Practice this daily visualization for just one minute, twice a day.
  • Listen to the best leadership podcasts, like Craig Groeschel’s podcast. Great leaders prioritize empathy, as the more a leader can empathize, the better they understand their followers.
  • When you’re being self-critical, empathize with how Dwayne Johnson redefined his self-image to become an international celebrity:

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Empathy vs. Sympathy vs. Compassion vs. Apathy

In terms of a definition, empathy vs. apathy has polar opposite meanings. Empathy vs. sympathy are very similar in meaning, but the differences exist in how you process and express what you hear a person saying.

Here are concrete situations that define empathy vs. apathy, empathy vs. sympathy, and why compassion should be your ultimate goal because it’s perhaps the most effective learned behavior.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Empathy vs. apathy in a situation

You’re on a fitness walk down a street with heavy traffic. You see a person up ahead chasing a dog that’s off-leash.

  • Empathy:  You jog up to the person and discover their dog slipped out of their collar by accident. You’re an animal lover, and you understand how this panicked dog owner is feeling.
  • Apathy:  You walk past as the dog skirts in and out of traffic. You think that no dog owner in their right mind would walk an animal off-leash on this busy street! 
  • Compassion:  You offer to assist the panicked dog owner and encourage passersby to band together in slowing traffic, allowing the owner to call back their dog and slip its collar and leash back on. 

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Empathy vs. sympathy in a situation

Your coworker has been on hold with off-shore IT forever. A presentation has gotten frozen on their laptop, and they have a deadline coming up in a few minutes that they cannot push back or reschedule.

  • Sympathy:  You can see how stressed out your coworker is, and you tell them you’re sorry.
  • Empathy:  You know this deadline is crucial to your coworker who’s gearing up to apply for a new position they’ve excitedly shared with you.
  • Compassion:  You have deadlines too, but they’re more flexible. You exit out of your current document and offer your laptop to your coworker. They sign in and access their document just in time for their big meeting.   

In every situation where you can react with compassion, the dividends received in relationship building or personal satisfaction are priceless.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

The 14 Best Quotes for Empathy

A good quote can do wonders! So when it comes to practicing empathy and learning how to be more empathetic, here are great quotes for empathy that you’ll want to keep at the forefront of your mind.

  1. “Looking at various means of developing compassion, I think empathy is an important factor, the ability to appreciate others’ suffering.” — the Dalai Lama
  2. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” — Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird
  3. “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” — Maya Angelou
  4. “The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” — Meryl Streep
  5. Anyone who has experienced a certain amount of loss in their life has empathy for those who have experienced loss.— Anderson Cooper
  6. “I’m not going to be that hard on you. Please don’t be that hard on yourself. We all go through some challenges, we all go through failure.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger
  7. “Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins.” — Barack Obama
  8. “I believe that lack of empathy is behind many problems, and I believe that it’s disrupting our society.” — J.K. Rowling
  9. “Be a true Heart, not a follower.” — Ed Sheeran
  10. “We must look beyond ourselves with empathy and compassion for those we know, and those we don’t. We need to lift up all of humanity, and make sure that no person or community is left behind.” — Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex
  11. “It’s hard to tell somebody—a player at that age—to understand compassion and empathy, but that would be my advice. It tends to come with time.” — Kobe Bryant
  12. “These are moments in my life deeper than just handing somebody a dollar. These are actually moments of integrity, being able to actually talk to somebody. Me talking to him was simply a thank you.” — Kendrick Lamar, on learning from a panhandler
  13. “It’s important and… necessary for us human beings to do that. To connect. To share. And to not concern ourselves too much with the outcome of such bravery.” —Jason Sudeikis
  14. “A lot of times I find that people who are blessed with the most talent don’t ever develop that attitude, and the ones who aren’t blessed in that way are the most competitive and have the biggest heart.” — Tom Brady

↑ Table of Contents ↑

The Big Empathy Takeaway

Now you have a strong concept of what empathy is and how empathy can have a different outcome vs sympathy, especially when you approach things empathetically with the end goal of compassion. 

Keep these key tips in mind:

  1. Ask at least one curious question to a friend, loved one, or even stranger. Breed your curiosity and keep an open mind.
  2. Strike up random conversations with strangers from different backgrounds. You never know what fascinating information you’ll learn!
  3. Lean slightly forward with an open torso when conversing with someone. You’ll not only appear more open, but feel more empathetic.
  4. Avoid judgmental phrases such as  “That looks…” or “I can’t believe you…” and replace them with open-ended ones instead.
  5. Make empathy digital. Thumbs-up people’s posts and spread the joy wherever you go digitally.
  6. Use “we” language more often. Incorporate others into your activities and language to be more inclusive.

That’s all, but empathy doesn’t stop there. It’s a lifelong building process! Check out these positive affirmations that you can practice daily for actual, positive results in many situations that life throws at you!

If you liked this article...

Read More in Social Skills