What is empathy?
Empathy is understanding the experience of someone else. This includes understanding another person’s feelings and thoughts. Affective empathy refers to when we actually feel what someone else is feeling. Cognitive empathy is when we intellectually understand what someone else is feeling and thinking. When we are empathic, we know what it feels like to be in another person’s shoes.
Is empathy beneficial?
Empathy is good for everyone. Empathy guides us as to how to best respond to others for their sake and for our own sake. Empathy warns us when someone wants to harm us or is upset with us. Empathy also stimulates our desire to help others. Compassion requires empathy, as we cannot relieve another person’s suffering skillfully if we do not fully understand their experience. Empathy diminishes negative judgments of others, since it allows us to truly understand why someone acts or thinks as they do. This also promotes compassion.
Overall, empathy enhances relationships and reduces stress. It feels good to be understood, so understanding others will engender a positive response from others towards you. When someone knows you understand their experience, they are more willing to understand your experience. For this reason, practicing empathy is especially useful when there is conflict. Mutual empathy fosters good will and helps people work things out.
Empathy is a gift you can give others that also benefits you. It is a win-win act of love when you are empathizing to help others.
What blocks empathy?
Apathy blocks empathy, because empathy requires curiosity. If we don’t care how others feel or are close-minded, we won’t make the effort to understand. Apathy leaves us emotionally disconnected from others, which is bad for us. When you notice apathy, make an intentional effort to open your heart and be curious about your fellow human beings.
Being judgmental blocks empathy. Our need to be right and make others wrong cuts off our ability to empathize. This is called antipathy. Rather than validating others’ experiences, judgmental people react by invalidating others, telling them why their experience is “wrong” and why they shouldn’t feel or think as they do. This behavior kills intimacy. Ironically, validating another person’s experience paves the way for them to listen to you. They just might see things from a different point of view. In the end, dropping judgments at least allows for us to agree to disagree and walk away feeling understood and respected.
Fear can block empathy. This is a natural survival mechanism that requires intentional work to overcome. Most of us need to feel safe before we can do the work of attempting to deeply understand another’s experience beyond seeing that they want to harm us.
Hurt and anger can also block empathy. When someone hurts us, our instinctive response may be to hurt back, which is more difficult if we are aware of another person as a human being just like us. When we feel aggressive, empathy shuts down so that we might inflict pain without feeling the pain we are inflicting. For these reasons, getting safe and processing hurt and anger are often necessary before we can do the work of empathizing with someone who has upset us.
We also set up empathy roadblocks when we give advice, make suggestions, tell people what to do, ask questions that derail people from talking about their thoughts and feelings, provide reassurance, offer explanations, or change the subject. Anything we say that interrupts a person’s attempt to share their heart with us blocks empathy.
How do we cultivate empathy?
We start by having empathy with ourselves. Empathy starts with authenticity—being real about how we feel. This requires accepting feelings that seem unacceptable. We need to reduce our defensiveness about negative feelings such as anger, hurt, fear, jealousy, or insecurity through the intentional practice of radical self-acceptance. We need to feel safe and OK to be exactly who we are. Through the practice of mindful presence, we can bear witness to our experience with an unconditional friendly attitude, letting go of any judgments that arise. Knowing what we are thinking and feeling sets the stage for us to explore how others are thinking and feeling.
The second practice is to pay close attention to others. Look closely at another person so you can see them. Listen closely so you can hear them. Practicing full presence with others deepens our understanding of others.
The third practice is the practice of inquiry. Ask questions about what someone is thinking and feeling. A good question is “help me understand.”
The forth practice is to make “mirror statements.” Reflect to the person you are talking to your understanding to see if you got it right. This gives others the chance to correct you.
The Importance of Practice
Empathy is a highly practical skill that takes intentional effort to develop through practice. When you set your morning intention to practice love, include your intention to practice empathy. Look for opportunities throughout your day to look, listen, inquire, and reflect. Then notice the positive responses you get from others when they feel understood. See how empathy enhances your relationships. You will find your investment of effort in empathizing highly rewarding.