Typically, we surround ourselves with people who have many similarities to us. While this makes for great friendships, it can also limit our perspective and, oftentimes, our ability to empathize with others. While some people might seem more naturally empathetic than others, this doesn’t have to be the case. Let’s start by defining the word: “Empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, to see things from their point of view, and to imagine yourself in their place.” Increasing your empathy is one of the best ways to improve your relationships and yourself. Fortunately, empathy is a trait that can be developed.
Talk to new people.
One of the best ways to strengthen your empathy is to ensure that you’re not living in a bubble. Get out, get social, and talk to people! The more variety in the types of people you meet—from different backgrounds, with different experiences, and from different walks of life—the more understanding you’ll gain of others. As you talk to people, lean in, actively give them your attention, and listen intently. Notice their body language cues, too. If they’re crossing their arms and angling away from you as they speak, they likely don’t want to continue with the conversation. Recognize and respect these cues. On the other hand, if the person you’re chatting with gives great eye contact and seems excited to share their stories with you, keep chatting! Take note of how they’re alike and different from what you expected (you’ll often find that you’re more alike than you think). Appreciate your similarities and celebrate your differences.
Don’t just stand, walk in other people’s shoes.
As you work to gain empathy for other people’s experiences, think through their whole day, week, month, etc. to get a fuller picture of their lives. Try to really imagine their daily encounters, struggles, and wins. If someone whizzes by you when the light turns green, don’t get annoyed thinking that they should slow down. Give the person the benefit of the doubt. They might be in a hurry for a number of important reasons that you have no idea about, such as a medical emergency. Continue this empathetic mindset in the workplace, your relationships, and beyond.
Take on tasks that you normally wouldn’t. Rather than assuming that the janitor will take your trash out or that someone else will make the coffee, do it yourself! Having more appreciation for the tasks you typically take for granted will give you a better understanding of the jobs others do on a daily basis.
Read, listen, learn, and grow.
There’s no excuse for not learning about other people and places. Pick up a book, read an article, and find ways to expand your comprehension of cultures beyond your own. You can access documentaries, visit museums, and attend lectures and seminars in areas outside of your neighborhood, too. Gather even more suggestions on ways to elevate your empathy, here. Then, broaden your culture by attending community events or religious services with others not in your typical circle.
Rather than making assumptions and statements, ask questions. Let your inquiries go beyond the surface level so that you get deeper insights into people’s thoughts and ideas. Then, be open and honest about your own experiences and emotions. What hesitations and questions do you still have?
As you start to develop more empathy, put your new knowledge into action. If you hear discriminatory comments, speak up! If someone is being insensitive, (respectfully) call them out on it. Part of becoming more empathetic is not sitting by when you witness an injustice. Commit to making a difference in other people’s lives.
So, take time to stop, listen, and observe every day. What can you learn about what other people are going through? What questions can you ask your friends, neighbors, coworkers, or the woman sitting next to you on the bus? Get out of your normal routine to put yourself in situations where you can actively learn from others. As a result of your increased empathy, you’ll be a more compassionate, understanding person and a better friend.
Calling all parents: Becoming more empathetic in addition to increased mindfulness will help you to become a better mom or dad, too. Read more about becoming a mindful parent, here.