The Beginner’s Guide To Empathy (and How To Get Better At It)

Empathy is a wonderful thing. It allows us to feel more connected to those around us. It is quite literally the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Can’t get much more connected than that.
 
For decades, scientists thought that we were self-interested beings. That we only went after our own needs and wants. But now, things have shifted in how we understand human nature. Neuroscientists have discovered and identified a 10-section “empathy circuit” in our brains. If this gets damaged, it can hinder our ability to understand what other people are feeling.
 
We are biologically wired for empathy, social cooperation, and connection.
 
But is there a downside to empathy? That would depend on what type of empath you are.
 
There are three types of empathy that have been suggested by Psychologist Mark Davis – cognitive empathy, personal distress (self-oriented empathy), and empathic concern (other-oriented empathy).
 
Cognitive empathy is being able to see things from another’s point of view. This is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
 
Self-oriented empathy is feeling someone else’s emotions as your own. For example, when you are watching a scary movie and you start to empathize with the character and feel afraid, that is personal distress in action. Too much of this is not a good thing, and can be downright exhausting.
 
Other-oriented empathy is what we most often think of when we think of empathy. This is when we are able to recognize what someone else is feeling. If that emotion is negative, we are able to feel and show the right level of concern. The difference is that we don’t feel that emotion as if we were experiencing it ourself.
 
I’ve struggled with being a self-oriented empath. There have been days when been I’ve exhausted and drained as a result of taking on the emotions of others.
 
This ties into my desire to help others. I’ve often had difficulty not taking on the issues of others as my own and trying to solve them.

How can we develop better empathy?

Listen

“It is easier to speak than it is to listen.” Often, and especially with heated topics, we have already thought about what we’re going to say next before the other person has even finished speaking. We can’t wait to get it out and will often start speaking even before the other person has had a chance to finish.

Practice intently listening and concentrating on what the other person is saying. One tactic I use to work on this is paraphrasing. After the other person has finished speaking, I take a moment to repeat back the coles notes of what they said. Not word for word, but a check to make sure I understood what they were saying. This does two things:

  1. It ensures that the other person knows I was listening and gives them time to clarify if needed
  2. It gives me extra time to come up with my own response

Be Curious and Observe

Put down the phone. Look at the people around you and imagine their lives. Who are they? What might they be thinking/feeling? How are they feeling? Do they live here or are they from out of town? Be curious and care about those around you, even if they are strangers. We all have our own stories, and being genuinely curious about others gives us a sense of connection to those around us.

Play Devil’s Advocate

Consider the other side of the debate. This is understandably not easy to do in the heat of the moment, but if we can pretend to be a third person and take the point of view of the other side, it can help us empathize with what the other person is trying to say.

Will we agree with it? Not always, and likely not much of the time at all. But that’s not the point of this exercise. The point is simply to see where the other person is coming from…after all, they are likely just trying to do exactly what we’re doing…trying to get them to see our side of things.

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