Mindful Exercises To Practice Empathy

What is empathy? If you've ever felt sad when someone else was sad or been able to truly feel another person's happiness or heartbreak, you've experienced empathy. Empathy not only gives you an understanding into how other people feel – good or bad — it allows you to feel those things with them. If you cry every time Bambi's mom dies because you can feel Bambi's loss and confusion, you have empathy.


There is a great importance to empathy, and, unfortunately, not everyone practices this ability to feel for others — if more people did, it would be harder to intentionally do things that hurt someone else because it would hurt you too. For "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fans, think of Spike with the chip in — he experiences pain any time he tried to hurt someone. In this case it wasn't anything to do with empathy, rather a science experiment, but the analogy still fits: It's harder to hurt others if you'll hurt yourself along with them (for most folks anyway).

Of course, having empathy doesn't mean we're all pushed to help others — but understanding people better is a big step in the right direction. Empathy also isn't a cookie-cutter emotion and can fall into a few different categories.


There are different kinds of empathy

When it comes down to it, there are three different types of empathy a person can experience. Compassionate, emotional, and cognitive empathy all have different traits — while some people can experience all three, some may only experience one, or even none. 


Compassionate empathy is actually a bit of a balance between the other two types of empathy — and that's why we're diving in here first. It is the type of empathy those who want to express more empathy often strive for. Compassionate empathy allows us to understand the struggle someone is going through without taking that struggle into ourselves — we can understand what they're going through, even feel what it's like to be in their shoes, but we're able to stay disconnected so that we can help rather than feel weighed down.

Feeling weighed down, or in the case of someone who's happy, overly ecstatic, are signs of emotional empathy. When you take on the other person's emotions and can't help but cry or cheer with them, you are experiencing this type of empathy, and it can wear on a person if they don't learn how to better balance those feelings toward compassionate empathy.


Lastly, there is cognitive empathy, which is when you understand what someone is going through without the emotional baggage that comes with compassionate empathy. It misses the "feeling" aspects of empathy, but the person is not less empathetic about your struggles — they still understand.

Can you really learn to be more empathetic?

The answer is yes, you can really be more empathetic, if you want to. It's really just a matter of being more self-aware of your feelings and actions toward others. By being mindfully present in situations, you open yourself up to more emotions, and that's a great start when it comes to understanding other people's emotions.


Unfortunately, studies have shown a significant decrease in empathy in our world over recent years in college-aged people, which could have something to do with the way we live our lives nowadays. Some theories are that social media and a pressure to be more successful could be dropping people's empathy to an all-time low. It could also be that we don't spend as much time with extended families or even face-to-face with people in general in this age of online school, working from home, and smaller family sizes.

The good thing to know is that there are things you can do to be more mindful and increase your empathy, and none of them are that hard to integrate into your life. Let's take a look at just a few ways to be more empathetic.


Try on someone else's shoes

You've likely heard the term walking in someone else's shoes, and it's not just about little kids trying on their parents oversized kicks. To put yourself in another's shoes, you need to put yourself aside and your own feelings and knowledge so that you can put yourself in their space — open yourself up to understand what the other person is going through. 


You don't have to be poor or homeless to be able to understand what it's like to be someone in those situations. There are a couple of ways you can use mindfulness to visualize that person's situation, allowing you to learn what it's like to be someone else — and that understanding is a major stepping stone to empathy. It's as simple as closing your eyes and imagining you are this other person; see yourself in your mind's eye going through exactly what they've gone through. Feel it, don't just visualize it as you're watching them, but rather as you actually being them.

You can also role-play if you have someone to role-play with — which can be a friend that isn't the one you're trying to understand. Be them. Speak and think like them. Have the other person be you or someone who is trying to understand empathy and go through the motions.


Don't be afraid to be curious

When we meet new people it can seem intrusive to ask a lot of questions, but that's how you get to know someone — getting to know people allows you to feel empathetic toward them. Be mindful when you meet a new person and focus on actually getting to know them — listen to them so that you can know what to ask to dive deeper into their feelings.


Another way to mindfully use curiosity to increase your empathy is to become a better observer. If you watch other people express empathy toward others, you can begin to learn to be more empathetic yourself. If you see what others look like when not expressing empathy, you can see the difference empathy makes in conversations and interactions. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it makes humans more knowledgable about one another, so don't be afraid to get to down to the nitty gritty when you're having conversations.

Find common ground

When you have something in common with another person, even if it's something small like a hobby or favorite store, that gives you something to build your empathy on. Of course, that mindful curiosity is one way to find out if you have things in common with another person — talking is the perfect way to discover another person's interests.


Another thing you can do is be a sharer. Of course, be mindful of what you're sharing and who you're sharing with — if you like to collect something a little disturbing to most people, that may not be the best place to start looking for common ground. Telling people about your hobbies, however, may find you some new friends from different lives and cultures who enjoy the things you do, from painting to singing at karaoke nights. Of course, take some time to learn what other people enjoy doing as well, you may even find a new favorite hobby!

Find empathy for fictional characters

Studies have shown that watching TV and reading books where people are able to connect with a character helps them develop more empathy. If you're the type of person to cry when Old Yeller has to be put down or when a book you're reading has a sad ending, then you're already increasing your empathy. Being mindful of the lives of fictional people in the stories we enjoy, whether on the page or on the screen, is a great way to increase our empathy and be more understanding of the plights of others.


So, the next time you have a free couple of hours, grab that bowl of popcorn, put a sad movie on, and let yourself be one with the characters. Soon enough, those people on the screen will feel like your friends and family and you'll start to worry about them and hope that the best happens to them. And then dive into a good book that might have you mindfully experiencing the same empathetic response. 

Embrace your past

While active listening is important in getting to know people, sharing your own experiences with someone to show them they're not the only ones to go through these things is an act of empathy, and the more open you are, the more empathetic you'll be. Be sure to look for the right time and place to share your story — don't interupt your friend's sob story to chime in with your own.


It's always important to be mindful of the situation. You can also ask if it's okay to relay your own story before diving into the tale. Let the person know you've had a similar experience and ask if they think hearing about it and how you got through it may help them in their situation. If they're open to it, tell your story. If they aren't, respect that and perhaps broach the subject again at a different time. 

While it may not be easy to relive your past, sharing your story may be just the thing that helps the two of you relate — and you may find an empathetic ear as well.

Be an active listener

Even though sharing is caring, you also want to be an active listener. Mindfulness 101 tells us to be in the moment, so listen to the person you're trying to be more empathetic toward, and don't spend your time trying to think of your reply until they're done talking. Also, don't spend time thinking of a story you want to share — be mindful of what is being said to you, look the person in the eye and stay facing them so they know you're listening. 


While facing a person and keeping eye contect with them shows you're present, that still isn't enough to tell them you're listening. Nod, acknowledge the things they say with small statements of encouragement or simple "yes" statements. Once you've mastered active listening you'll notice it's easier to put yourself in someone else's shoes and be more empathetic to their problems.

Face your fears

You've heard of this: Do something that scares you every day. And facing those fears can help you be more empathetic. How does fear equal increased empathy? When you've found yourself in fearful situations it makes it easier to understand the fears other people experience. 


But how can you mindfully increase your chances of being in fearful situations? While you don't want to jump in the middle of a fight or find out what it's like to rob a bank, you can initiate some safer exercises that could induce some anxiety. Try traveling someplace alone and getting to know the people you meet while you're there — whether it's to another country or simply another town. If you're not the outgoing type, this will be a good way to put yourself out there and become a little vulnerable. Sign up for a class where you'll learn about something you've always been interested in but too afraid to learn. Beekeeping (especially if you have a fear of bees) comes to mind. 

Be mindful of your biases

When we have biases it keeps us from better understanding others because we are busy living in these things we've grown to believe, whether they are familial, cultural, or even unconscious biases. Our biases can keep us from being able to understand others and from allowing us to walk in their shoes. Bias, in case you're unaware, are prejudices we feel against people or other things. If you have ill feelings toward a certain race, job, religion, or the like, you have a bias. Being aware and mindful of our biases is a great way to improve your empathy.


Even unconscious biases can affect us on an empathetic level. The first step in letting go of any bias is being mindful that you have it. Once you accept it, you can start to work through it by getting to know people you have biases toward.

Volunteer or join a cause

Putting your mindfulness to work by doing things to help others is a sure way to grow your empathy and to let go of your biases as well. If you struggle to understand the plight of homelessness, volunteering at a soup kitchen can help you be more mindful of what they're going through and allow you to be more empathetic toward them. Plus, you'll help people get a warm meal, which may be their only one that day. When you have free time, get to know the people you meet while volunteering, no matter their age or place in life.


Not only will you learn more about the people you're helping in volunteer situations, but you will also get to know other volunteers and open yourself up to practicing other mindful steps, like active listening and finding common ground. Volunteering has a way of bringing meaning into people's lives, not only for those you're helping but for you as someone who has donated their time to help others.

Use art therapy

Whether you've practiced art therapy or not, putting yourself into a creative state of mind is definitely a form of meditation and mindfulness. Art therapy is a mindful way to connect with our own feelings, but learning to enjoy art can also help make us more empathetic. How we process our empathy, or whether we have it as an adult, can stem all the way back to childhood.


When you create art from your feelings it allows you to get a different perspective. Creating something that represents what another person is going through (as opposed to creating art about something you're going through) allows you to see their struggle from a different angle and from the creative side of your mind. 

The type of medium doesn't matter — paint, draw, collage art — whatever speaks to you. Even writing poetry about the things we go through or see others go through can help us increase our empathy.

Practice kindness every day

Being nice to someone, even if you don't even know them or take the time to get to know them, can help increase your empathy and it's easy to do. Kindness allows us to find a connection with our empathetic side if we are mindful of the kind of action we are doing. Why are you holding the door open for that person? Is it because they're elderly and you want to help make their lives easier or because their arms are full and you don't want to see them struggle?


By being aware of why you do kind things for people, you tap into empathy through mindfulness. Not sure what else to do as a daily kindness, here are a few ideas: Pay off someone's utility bill, leave some extra quarters or laundry detergent at the laundromat, ask someone if they need help if they look like they're struggling in some way, or offer to help a friend by volunteer babysitting or helping them with yard work.

Get feedback from people you know

There are some definate factors that lead to a decline in empathy, which include keeping yourself issolated from others (which is something many of us have been doing since 2020) and a general difficulty in communicating with people. It's important to communicate with others for many reasons, and one easy way you can better communicate and pull yourself out of issolation is to talk more with your friends. One thing you want to talk about is your empathy.


Be mindful of your progress increasing empathy and take time out to talk to friends and family and ask them if they see you as empathetic and what ways they think you could improve. Being mindful of the signs of a lack in empathy is important in being more empathetic — and sometimes you need an outside opinion to see where you're truly lacking. Don't take what they say personally, but rather take it as a way to be more aware of where you need work when it comes to showing your empathy to others.