Develop Empathy & Improve Your Relationships

In today’s world of being busy, busy, busy, it can be hard to take the time to truly try to understand someone. Online friendships, texting, and emails have also made it difficult to connect with others on a deeper level.

But developing empathy will help you build better relationships – at home, at work and just in your everyday life.

What is Empathy?


Empathy is the process of understanding a person’s subjective experience. You may not know exactly what someone else is going through, but by practicing compassion and understanding, you can be empathetic to their emotions and/or experience.

Empathy Builds Healthy Relationships in Work and Life

Having empathy improves your leadership, teaches you to ask the right questions, boosts teamwork,
enhances relationships, and allows you to better understand those you work and live with. Here’ s a few tips on how you can build your empathy muscles.

Get Curious About Strangers

Don’t be afraid to talk to the person standing in line or sitting across from you on the bus. With family and close friends, don’t be afraid to dig deeper and ask questions.

According to happiness guru Martin Seligman, “Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and world views very different from our own.” He also identifies curiosity as a key character strength.

A fun thing to do is people watch. Get curious about those around you. What do they do for work? What are their lives like? Are they married? Have children? How are they feeling at this moment? You’re not judging and you don’t have to be right. It’s just about noticing and becoming curious. That’s what’s important here.

Listen and Be Vulnerable

Don’t be afraid to have deep conversations with those closest to you as increased empathy only comes through interacting with others. This is developed through listening and making yourself vulnerable. Listen to the entire message that the other person is trying to communicate.

  • Listen with your ears – what is being said and what tone is being used?
  • Listen with your eyes – what is the person doing with his/her body while speaking?
  • Listen with your instincts – do you sense that the person is not communicating something important?
  • Listen with your heart – what do you think the other person feels?

We all have three needs: To be seen, to be heard, and know that we matter. When you take the time to truly listen, you’re giving this gift.

Be Fully Present

Be fully present when you are with people and tune in to non-verbal communication. A study by Professor Emeritus, Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, reports that the things we say account for only 7 percent of what we are trying to communicate. “The other 93% of the message that we communicate when we speak is contained in our tone of voice and body language.”

Challenge Yourself to Have Deeper Conversations

Deeper conversations are necessary for understanding a person’s point of view or personal challenges. You can do this by sharing a little more of your own experiences and perspectives and see if others follow suit.

Smile at People

Make eye contact and smile. A smile is contagious! Smiling releases feel good chemicals in the brain, activates reward centers, and increases health. And smiling at another could turn someone’s world around.

During my deepest depression and illness, sometimes all I needed was a smile from a stranger to lift my spirits and give me the courage to keep fighting.

Give Recognition

Recognize people for their efforts and be genuine when you give praise. And try to find something about everyone you meet that you can genuinely praise.

Try to Empathize with People Whose Beliefs Are Different

One good way to approach differing beliefs in conversation is to say, “That’s interesting, how did you develop that idea?” or “Tell me more about that”.

Play the “I Wonder” Game

The next time someone cuts you off in traffic, a clerk is rude to you, or your partner or child gets edgy with you, instead of getting defensive, play the “I Wonder” Game.

Ask yourself, “I wonder why they’re behaving that way?” “I wonder what’s going on for them right now?” This will not only help you connect with them, but will diffuse any unnecessary and possibly damaging situation. It may not have anything to do with you.

The Man on the Train

There was a story I heard one time about a man on a train. He had 2 young boys who were being rambunctious, loud, and unruly. The father seeming to be in a daze, paid no attention to his boys.

Another passenger on the train angrily walked up to the father and said, “Why don’t you do something about your boys?!”

The man, jarred out of his own thoughts, apologized profusely and quickly called the boys to him. He told the fellow passenger that they were just returning from the hospital where his wife had just died.

We are all just doing the best we can

The truth is we don’t know what someone else is going through. As spiritual beings living in a physical world, we are all just doing the best we can.

Have Self-Empathy

Now building your empathy muscles takes time and practice, just like anything else that’s worthwhile.

So be patient and remember to have empathy for yourself. Many of these tips you can apply to yourself when you’re having a bad day or moment.

Don’t judge yourself. Just get curious. Ask yourself, “What’s going on for me right now?” Play the “I Wonder” Game with yourself. Listen to your feelings and give yourself grace.

When you can learn to have empathy for yourself, it’s easier to have it for others.

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