Tips For Being More Empathetic To Those Around You

In a world that's always ready to move on to the next big thing, it's not always easy to slow down and look around us. And often, when we do, something else is thrown our way before we're able to take in what we slowed down for. Because of this, we sometimes forget the importance of being human. In forgetting this fact, our ability to empathize with others tends to be put on the back burner when it really shouldn't — not just for those in our lives, but for ourselves too.


"Empathy is the capacity to understand and truly get someone's feelings and the situations associated with those feelings," clinical psychologist Steven M. Sultanoff, Ph.D., tells Psych Central. "[Empathy] is not feeling what the other person feels at the moment. That would be sympathy. 'I understand you feel upset because...,' communicates empathy. 'I feel so upset that this is happening to you,' communicates sympathy."

But while some might say they are empathetic, if they don't feel it, then they're not. In fact, it's been cited that those who don't know the difference between empathy, sympathy, and pity have a lower emotional intelligence than people who do know the difference. Granted, this theory isn't based on lengthy, hardcore research, but it does say something about what one is capable of understanding deeply or shallowly. Naturally, in a perfect world, we'd all like to be thought of as empaths, so here's how to be more of one.


Listen, don't just hear

When people talk, it's easy to hear and just let words go in one ear and out the other, then trickle off our back. But when we take the time to listen, to actually take in the words that are being said and allow them to penetrate us and affect us, we're being empathetic.


"What is essential," psychologist Marshall Rosenberg tells Greater Good Magazine, "is our ability to be present to what's really going on within — to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment."

This is called active listening. Active listening is a technique in which you don't just listen, but you pay attention to nonverbal cues like body language. If you've ever said or heard the phrase, "I'm fine," fully knowing that nothing about the situation is fine, then you already know that words don't always align with feelings. Being open and receptive to everything that's being said and shown to you gives you the ability to really understand on a deep and empathetic level.


Admit to yourself that you're biased

Before you scowl and mutter under your breath that you're absolutely not biased, realize empathy only works when you can get honest and realize everyone is biased ... everyone. There's nothing wrong with being biased as long as you can see it and call yourself out on it in a way that forces you to change. 


"Bias is a natural part of the human condition," psychologist Erin L. Thomas, Ph.D., tells The New York Times. "This is adaptive for us to take mental shortcuts and make conclusions about the people around us. Actively working to combat that is what matters."

Although different, bias and privilege go hand-in-hand in some ways. It's our privilege that makes us biased, so in recognizing these two aspects about ourselves and admitting that they are indeed fact, we can create greater self-awareness. When we're self-aware, we're more open in how we receive things and share things, therefore allowing us to be more empathetic to those around us.

Expose yourself to a world outside your own

If you've ever traveled far away from everything you've ever known into villages and cultures that some privileged people will never see or experience, then you probably have already felt high levels of empathy. When you're standing in a village in Cambodia where the streets have landmine victims pleading for change or been to Cusco, Peru, where your purchase of a small handmade trinket is a month's worth of food for a family, then you know that travel can really make empaths out of all of us.


"We are not all-knowing creatures," David Mura writes in his book "A Stranger's Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing," "If we live in a village . . . we think our truth is the only truth; we think the way we see ourselves is the only way to see ourselves. But if a stranger walks into our village, or if we . . . walk into a village of strangers, we are suddenly aware that there are other ways of looking at the world; there are other ways of looking at ourselves, at who we are, at our place in the world, at the ways we identify ourselves."

Those who are considered highly empathetic people (HEP) welcome their views being challenged and love being introduced to perspectives that are not their own because it increases their empathy. If you can't travel, then you can watch movies that show the humanity in life. "Very few people can watch a really sad movie and not feel bad," Ranga Krishnan, M.D., tells Insider. Reading does the same.


Get involved in social movements

Part of shaking your bias and stepping into worlds that aren't your own is getting involved in movements and organizations that want to change and do better. When you see what others have and don't have, it makes your ability to understand that focusing on the similarities of being human is what creates empathy, not focusing on the differences (via WebMD). Being part of such communities also promotes growth, self-awareness, communication, and conflict resolution — all of which are essential to being empathetic.


Research has found that those with low empathy levels are far less likely to get involved in volunteering, supporting charity, and any other acts of altruism. Based on this, when you become part of the community and act for change, you're not only boosting your own empathy levels, but you're around others who also have high empathy levels. Being around such people can inspire, and together, as a group, empathy can be fostered and therefore flourish. 

Don't make it about you

If we want to make things as simple as possible, empathy and sympathy can be broken up into two categories: "I understand" statements and "I feel" statements, the latter expressing sympathy. When we say "I feel" we're making the situation about ourselves. It's no different than a friend telling us that a loved one has passed away and responding with, "I felt like that when my grandfather died too." There's no understanding in that, and even if not intentional, it's a selfish response.


In cases, perhaps, where you don't understand, you can at least say you do and make the person feel respected. We can't always understand everything that someone else is experiencing, but as long as you make sure to show respect and don't make it about yourself, that's what matters (via The New York Times).

Being truly empathetic takes practice. It means letting down your guard, making yourself vulnerable, and allowing others to be vulnerable around you. It means being mindful, self-aware, and able to pinpoint places in your life that may interfere with your ability to be empathetic.

"[Mindfulness] is being aware of your own and [other's] emotions, in the present, without judgment," licensed marriage and family therapist Dan Blair tells PsychCentral. "Mindfulness practice includes taking a deep breath and asking yourself, 'What is happening inside of me?' When you can do this for yourself, you can go deeper with others. Judgment and stress push us past needed social connection and into fight, flight, and shut down modes."


It may take you a while to get to the level of empathy that you'd like to achieve, but these tips will at least get you moving in the right direction.