Empathy — the ability to connect and relate with others’ minds and emotions — is basically a bridge that helps us meet people where they are, understand what someone’s feeling, and support them emotionally in times of need.
Most people tend to be fairly confident in their empathy skills. Heck, some are actual empaths — people who are naturally hyper-sensitive to the feelings of others.
But regardless of your sensitivity level, there’s nothing wrong with a crash course in empathy to reap the benefits for all.
Keep reading to find out how to be empathetic in certain areas of life, why empathy matters, and how to avoid overdoing it (after all, we’re not trying to exhaust ourselves).
We spoke with experts who offered some practical advice for using empathy in different areas of life.
Dr. Jennifer Chain, a licensed psychologist in Seattle, WA suggests listening closely to your partner or friend as they are sharing something with you while checking in with your own body for feelings and sensations.
“This does require some suspension of your own judgments, assumptions, expectations, or beliefs,” she says.
She also points out that it’s a good idea to assume that you don’t fully understand your partner/friend, thus, you should always be curious about what they may be feeling.
“The benefit of practicing empathy in your relationships is that you are holding up a mirror for your partner/friend to feel seen and heard and you are co-creating meaning about what is happening for them,” Chain explains. “This leads to deeper emotional bonding and intimacy.”
For example, if your partner or roommate comes home excited about their promotion at work, you can tune in to your own body and intuition to understand their joy and excitement.
Chain says to think about reflecting back to them something like, “Wow, I can see how much this lights you up! When I hear you talk about this I am feeling my heart swell with happiness and pride for you. Congratulations! Let’s really celebrate tonight!”
Work and school
Dr. Bethany Cook, a licensed clinical psychologist in the Chicago area, points out how empathy in the workplace and at school can help others feel comfortable and safe.
She offers an example: You show the new student or co-worker around, asking them questions in an effort to genuinely get to know them. Maybe set a date to grab coffee in a week to check in with how they’re adjusting.
She also adds that you can help someone out just because it’s nice. For example, if you notice a peer or colleague is having issues or falling behind in productivity, you could offer an encouraging word that helps them feel seen.
“Karma is real and I pay into that bank daily,” Cook adds.
Since so much of our lives is lived online it can be easy to forget that empathy matters there too. In fact, technology can help us express empathy better when distance is a factor in relationships.
Dr. Maurya Glaude, a mental health practitioner and scholar in the Greater New Orleans area points out that tools like Facetime and conferencing apps like Zoom have increased access and created the ability to connect better.
“Empathy definitely begins with human connection,” Glaude says. “It also involves the choice to be vulnerable and open to a shared experience that engages feelings.” So next time you’re about to punch out the usual text to someone, ask yourself if you have a few extra minutes to video call them instead. Take the extra step to soak up some of that precious face-to-face connection.
One inevitability about online interactions is that they can bypass empathy and get ugly fast.
Cook suggests being willing to look past words. For example, she points out that if someone lashes out at you in a comment, regardless of whether you know this person or not, the fact that they said what they said in a public forum may mean they were responding emotionally.
“Don’t respond. Delete the comment (maybe block the user) and chalk it up to that person being triggered and maybe in a dark place that has nothing to do with you or your post.”
If you do choose to respond, take a moment (or a few) before you do so that empathy can take the lead over your own emotions.
Back in 2006, then-Senator Barack Obama gave a commencement speech at Northwestern University, where he raised his concern about something he called “empathy deficit.”
He encouraged the graduating class to cultivate empathy, describing it as simply, “Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes…” He also noted that as you go through life, this can become harder instead of easier, since no one can force you to care about anything.
Even though empathy can be tough and requires a self-starter attitude, it’s worth working on.
Chain points out the advantages of empathy, saying, “Research has shown that empathy can lead to greater happiness, stronger immune systems, better communication, increased sense of belonging, depth in relationships, and healthy work environments.” (OK, sign us up, pls.)
Chain explains how, as a psychologist, offering empathy to her clients is part of her job and she sees its positive impact all the time.
“I have found that accurate empathy can improve my clients’ ability to better understand and feel compassion for themselves, improve their mental health, and improve their sense of empowerment and courage to create a life worth living.”
Glaude says empathy can promote emotional connections between couples, families, groups, and communities.
“Building these connections creates a sense of oneness and unity,” she states. “Since humans are genetically wired for connectivity, empathy can feel very natural and build community. Through community, we can find healing and experience healthy interactions that form healthy attachments.”
Plus, she adds, biologically, these attachments can be protective assets that create safety and security for children, adolescents, and adults. “Yes, even adults rely on safe human interactions,” Glaude says.
Chemically, Glaude says these experiences also result in the brain’s release of healthy endorphins like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin (which we looooove).
Cook sums it up by saying, “Empathy essentially strengthens the social fabric that holds humanity together.”
Sure, there are plenty of feels involved, but there’s also a science-y scoop behind how empathy works.
Cook explains what happens in our brains when we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, emotionally. “As humans, we have these amazing neurons called mirror neurons. Essentially what this means is you are literally able to feel another person’s pain, joy, happiness, love, fear.”
Chain notes that neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti found that all primates, including humans, have these mirror neurons (not just the empaths!).
“Mirror neurons are activated when we see another person perform an action and we feel as if we are ourselves are performing the same action, therefore ‘mirroring’ in our mind the action of the other person,” Chain says.
For example, you know that feeling when you’re watching a horror movie and you feel a pit in your stomach when you see someone get slashed? Empathy. Or when you watch your niece’s gymnastics routine and swell with pride when she sticks the landing? Empathy again. Those are signs your mirror neurons are working, baby!
As you can probably guess, cultivating empathy means more than just being a good listener (although that’s a big part of it).
Chain explains that empathy is different from merely listening. Listening is about focusing on the content of what is being said, while empathy (if done well) involves listening to the content and focusing on the emotions underneath the words.
“For example, if my friend tells me a story about her boss mistreating her but then she makes a self-deprecating joke and laughs it off, I can feel in my own body the sadness and helplessness of her story,” Chain says.
“Accurate empathy is reflecting back to her what I felt in my body, not just what she said on the surface. I may say to her, ‘I am so sorry to hear that you are being treated so poorly by your boss. I see that you are laughing it off but if I were in your shoes, I would feel really sad and helpless. Is that what you are feeling too?'”
Cook agrees, adding that when you’re just listening, you literally interpret the words being spoken and take the message at face value.
Have you ever asked someone how they were feeling and they said “fine” and you knew they weren’t fine? You were being empathetic.
Cook says being empathetic is about looking past the words and observing the feelings behind them by noticing nonverbal body language, changes in breathing or rate of speech, changes in the amount of time someone responds to online posts, or the types of words they’re using, etc.
“Empathy is knowing your BFF is having a bad day before you talk to them face-to-face, by just the way they walk to the car,” Cook explains.
No one’s perfect, but you can take some steps to see if you’re nailing the whole empathetic thing or not.
Glaude says we may not be able to explain the shared feelings but if you’re feeling a sense of connection in your body, you are likely engaging with and experiencing some level of empathy for the other person.
“Conveying empathy is a skill that engages reflection and the recall of feelings that may be uncomfortable,” Glaude notes. “Choosing empathy is showing a willingness to be with [the person] and to connect [with their emotions]. Your body language and exchange of energy can communicate empathy before you ever open your mouth.”
She adds that you will know that you’re truly experiencing empathy when you feel your mind, body, and spirit awaken through this connection with others. “You will feel an openness in your core, and you will naturally feel yourself lean in. You may also feel yourself connecting through eye contact, nodding, and you might even notice a slight change in your body temperature.”
Chain encourages us to check in with the other person to see if your empathy feels accurate for them. She also encourages us to practice identifying our own emotions and expanding our emotional vocabulary.
“For example, it is helpful to be able to offer someone the nuanced difference between ‘sad,’ ‘hopeless,’ ‘demoralized,’ “grief,” and ‘resigned’ in your empathetic reflection,” she says.
She also says it may help to use your imagination to put yourself into their situation or even physically mirror their body language to give you more clues about how they might be feeling.
How do you know if it’s just plain old not working?
Chain says you’ll know you’re not hitting the mark if the other person:
- outright tells you so
- shows in their body language that they have shut down
- abruptly changes the topic
Cook acknowledges what you may be thinking right now, which is that holding emotional space for someone takes a lot of effort and energy. “You won’t be able to do it for extended periods of time and still have energy left for yourself or those closest to you,” she says.
So, naturally, she says this means you’ll need to learn your own limits and recognize when you’re getting close to reaching them.
Glaude offers some warning signs of empathy burnout related to secondary traumatic stress:
- extreme irritability
- poor sleep or personal hygiene
Glaude suggests getting some regular communal and self-care strategies in place, especially if you consistently maintain a helper role, like teachers, medical providers, social workers, firefighters, and spiritual leaders. These roles can often cause empathy burnout.
“You are not able to assist others when you are overextended,” she says.
She goes on to point out that while being with a person and their emotions is key, we must keep clear boundaries. “We cannot feel the emotions for the person.”
Here are some personal care suggestions Glaude says can help:
- Schedule personal time for yourself.
- Recognize and understand your own reactions.
- Give yourself grace to know that you can’t “fix” everything.
- Establish and maintain appropriate emotional boundaries (i.e., with coworkers, friends, and family members).
- Show yourself kindness and accept yourself.
- Talk things over with people who are life-giving and who help you feel rejuvenated.
- Make time to laugh and enjoy humor with others.
Setting limits and being proactive, Glaude says, is vital to helping us avoid empathy burnout.
A note on extreme empathy
Cook tells us it’s important to recognize that sometimes people develop extreme empathy as a result of trauma and survival mechanisms kick in so they can predict the emotional, physical behavior of their abuser.
“Many times setting healthy boundaries is a struggle that makes them perfect prey to someone with a personality disorder or who is overly needy to a toxic level. And those empaths who struggle with boundaries (regardless of the cause) are genuinely exhausted at the end of each day.”
If this sounds like you, consider talking with a therapist — if one is available to you.
Empathy is a muscle and you’ve gotta flex it regularly to get any gains. Empathy also matters in every area of your life, and like Chain tells us, empathy tends to create more empathy (a good kind of contagion!).
Finally, Glaude offers us these simple steps for cultivating empathy:
- Recognize that people may have different experiences, feelings, and perspectives from your own.
- Put yourself in someone else’s place and experience what they’re feeling through a shared human connection.
- Connect and respond with compassion and active empathetic listening that demonstrates community with others.
- Regulate your own reactions and emotions so that the response does not become about you, and the focus remains on the other human.
- Acknowledge and recognize vulnerability and the feelings that emerge through your human connections.