Empathy comes more natural when you’ve been through hard times because that makes it easier to relate. But, I wouldn’t wish challenges, suffering, or loss on anyone for the sheer purpose of teaching them a lesson in empathy. So, here are a few ways to learn empathy without having to walk in anyone shoes…
1. Stop trying to fix everything. JUST listening is one of the simplest ways to be empathetic. Unless you have a magic gold hammer. Then always use the magic gold hammer. But, seriously, depending on the circumstance, most people appreciate having their feelings acknowledged, even if you can’t fix anything.
2. Make eye contact. “They wouldn’t say that to my face” is a popular expression for a reason. We’re more likely to be considerate of someone’s feelings if we speak face to face. Even if you don’t understand what someone is experiencing, it’s hard to not empathize with concern, worry, sadness, exhaustion, or pain in someone’s eyes. A phone call is a decent substitute. A voice can also reveal a lot about how someone is feeling.
3. Ask questions. If you can’t relate to someone, be curious and ask questions because making false assumptions is a good way to bypass empathy. And I’ve done it plenty. It sounds like this: He has it easy. She doesn’t need my help. He’s ignoring me on purpose. There’s nothing I could say that would make a difference. Unless you have a rational reason for believing those assumptions are true, then ask questions instead. ‘Are you OK?’ ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ ‘How have things been going for you?‘ work well.
4. Read biographies, memoirs, and personal blogs. If you can’t experience something first hand, then reading about it can be a real eye opener. Especially if the story is written in a compelling way. I read Mortality by Christopher Hitchens and Bright-sided by Barbara Ehrenreich when my father was ill with cancer and it deepened my empathy for him. You could also ask someone to tell you some of their life story. Ask about specific experiences like their childhood or college days or something more personal if you feel comfortable. Exchanging stories teaches empathy.
5. Be useful. The most empathetic people I know are also the most helpful. The type of people who gladly lend a hand, help you move, offer to wash the dishes, help out with the kids, share their knowledge, offer helpful feedback, ect. etc. I think helping out is how we learn to understand each other.
6. Stop telling people to “cheer up”. Or smile, it’s not that bad… get over it… it could always be worse… and other clichés that are dismissive to someone’s pain. Refer to #1 instead.
7. Have empathy for yourself. You’re more likely to be empathetic if you’re proactive about caring for your own well-being. If I’m going through a hard time, the most important person I need empathy from is myself. For example, self-empathy can be as simple as making sure you rest when you’re sick. It’s the people who brag about how they went to work even though they had pneumonia that have a hard time with empathy. If you don’t care enough about yourself to rest when you’re ill, then of course, you won’t empathize when someone says they need to rest.