How to understand others better: 13 tips for greater empathy

Empathy is a psychological trait that lets you feel attuned and sensitive to other people’s needs. 

In today’s fast-paced and competitive world, it’s a quality that has become rare and overlooked.

I find this strange because nearly everyone has a sense of empathy in them. 

If you’ve found yourself feeling jaded and disconnected from others, don’t worry. There are many ways to reset and activate your “empathy bone.”   

In this post, I’ll show you some tips for becoming more empathetic. 

Let’s dive in!

1) Cultivate a sense of curiosity 

Curiosity is essential to developing empathy. After all, how can you connect with someone if you aren’t even interested in them? 

Curious people are more open to learning about other people’s perspectives. 

Wanting to know about someone’s experiences, feelings, and points of view can lead to a deeper understanding and connection with that person. 

It’s a necessary first step toward developing empathy. 

This is one of the reasons why well-traveled people have a greater sense of empathy. 

Because they are curious and eager to explore new places and get to know other cultures, they gain new insights into other people’s behavior and ways of life. 

You can do the same thing. You don’t even have to hop on a plane and go around the world to do this—you can do it right where you are. 

Try viewing your environment with a fresh eye and an open mind, much like a traveler’s, and be surprised by what you discover, even in places you’ve always considered familiar.  

Repeated exposure to new experiences allows you to go out of your comfort zone and talk to new people. In the process, you’ll develop sharper observation skills and a broader understanding of the world. 

2) Focus on similarities instead of differences

The poet Maya Angelou said, “We are more alike than we are unalike.”

And it’s absolutely true, as I’ve seen from my traveling experiences. 

I realized this on a trip to Bangkok many years ago. My sister and I had gone to one of the Buddhist temples to take pictures of the beautiful architecture. 

With so many tourists around us, it was pretty crowded and noisy. Unfortunately, somewhere in the chaos, I’d dropped my phone and realized it was missing about half an hour later. 

Of course, I was distraught—how could I be so stupid? I started crying, and the other tourists turned one by one to look at me. They started asking what had happened. 

The thing is, they were all speaking in their own languages. My sister mimed making a phone call, pointing to her phone, and shaking her hands to let them know I’d lost my phone. 

One of them finally spotted it on the pebbled path leading to the temple, grabbed it, and handed it to me with a big smile. Everyone else started clapping and patting me on the shoulder. 

That incident showed me how connection and emotional unity can happen despite our differences, whether cultural or personal. 

When meeting someone new, it’s good to remember this: you’ll always have a point of commonality with someone else, even if it doesn’t look like it on the surface.  

3) Put yourself in someone’s shoes 

Are you feeling annoyed because your new co-worker isn’t meeting work deadlines? 

Before you dismiss them as lazy or incompetent, take a breath and think. 

Maybe your co-worker is feeling overwhelmed with the new job. Or perhaps they’re struggling with self-doubt and anxiety as they navigate an unfamiliar environment. 

The point is, there may be more to it than meets the eye. 

Imagining yourself in their shoes could give you a better idea of their feelings. Think back to when you started a new job yourself. 

That will make it easier for you to exercise patience and understanding. 

4) Examine your biases 

We all have biases, no matter how fair or impartial we think we are. It’s human nature. 

Sometimes, we might not even be aware of it. 

Having biases doesn’t make you a bad person. However, not recognizing them can affect how you treat others and make decisions. 

Examining your biases is the first step to figuring out how to overcome them. After all, you can’t fix a problem you’re unaware of. 

Why is this crucial? 

Our biases can lead us to make the wrong assumptions and opinions of others. We could make snap judgments about other people without even realizing it. 

Exploring your biases takes some extensive self-reflection and deep diving into your values. 

This means you can’t just “try to be empathetic.” You’ll actually need to make empathy a core value. 

And it doesn’t stop there; you’ll also need to internalize it and live it out every single day. 

I know that’s easier said than done. Well, that’s where a life journal, like the one by Jeannette Brown, comes in.

Through a series of easy yet memorable exercises, you get to slowly incorporate new values into yourself.

I tried it and learned how to identify the principles that guide my life and how to really reflect these in my daily thoughts and actions.  

Go give it a try. It’s free!

5) Listen and share the other person’s feelings

If you want to develop greater empathy, hone your listening skills—these are important to growing as an empathetic person. 

Effective listening means zoning into what the other person is saying and being fully present in the conversation. 

For example, when your friend calls you and vents about her problems at work, don’t just listen passively. 

Listen more than you speak. Assure her you’re paying attention by giving cues that indicate interest. Encourage her to go on and show her you share her frustration. 

Another essential component of empathetic listening is the willingness to be vulnerable yourself. 

Empathy is not a one-way street—you can make a more profound connection when you trust others enough to show your genuine thoughts and feelings.  

6) Ask open-ended questions

Open-ended questions are always present in an empathetic person’s toolbox. According to leadership and relationship expert Cheryl McMillan, question-asking is the other half of empathetic listening. 

In any conversation, they help make more meaningful connections. 

By asking questions that require more than monosyllabic yes/no answers, you invite other people to share more of themselves. 

They will feel your genuine interest in getting to know them and wanting to go beyond superficial conversations.  

Here are some examples to show you how open-ended questions differ from closed questions: 

Closed Questions  Open-ended Questions 
  • Have you tried the new restaurant? 
  • Are you sad? 
  • Did you use X and Y to fix the issue?
  • What new restaurants have you tried? 
  • How is this affecting you? How do you feel?
  • Can you tell me how you tried to fix the issue? 

When you begin questions with “What,” “Why,” “How,” and other open-ended starters, you spark a more in-depth conversation with others.

The result? They will feel seen, heard, and understood. 

7) Pay attention and respond to non-verbal cues 

The art of listening also includes recognizing non-verbal cues and responding to those appropriately. 

Non-verbal communication or body language includes facial expression, eye contact, body movement and gestures, posture, shifts in energy, and more. 

They can tell us so much more about how a person feels, but only if we’re paying attention. 

For instance, let’s say you’re meeting someone new. They might say they aren’t nervous, but their body language might say otherwise. 

If you notice they keep on fidgeting, sit rigidly, or hold objects tightly, that can be your cue to do something to assure them or make them feel comfortable. 

8) Participate in social action movements

Joining a social action movement has tons of benefits for developing empathy

Choose a cause that resonates with you; it can be animal rescue, environment protection, civil rights issues, or mental health access…the options are endless!

The important thing is to pick one that sparks a genuine interest in you. 

Then, reach out and ask how you can help. 

Social action movements can help you develop new skills, gain insights, and build a sense of community with like-minded people. 

They can raise awareness and inspire others to make a difference in the world. 

Being part of a movement helps open you up to the larger issues in the world and develop compassion and a spirit of service. 

9) Remember that you’re not perfect

Are you quick to criticize a person when they make the wrong move? Do you make assumptions about them based on their failures? 

Fortunately, being judgmental and critical is a learned habit, which means you can unlearn it!

An excellent way to stop emotional reactions like these is to remember your own imperfections. 

This can prevent you from setting unrealistic expectations about others and being more accepting of their flaws. 

When you think back to all the times you’ve failed at something or done stupid things, you’ll find it easier to view other people’s mistakes from a different and more enlightened angle. 

10) Show emotional support 

personality traits of compassionate person How to understand others better: 13 tips for greater empathy

Being supportive is a crucial trait of empathetic people. 

Compassion and caring are at the heart of empathy, which involves concrete actions that make others feel cared for. 

Offer a listening ear and a comforting presence to your friend going through a divorce. 

Speak words of affirmation and encouragement to a relative trying to start a new business. 

Buy a thoughtful gift like a small plant or a cute coffee mug for someone feeling down in the dumps.  

These actions might seem inconsequential, but they can go a long way in giving others the support they need in difficult times. 

11) Practice emotional management 

Emotional management is the ability to understand and effectively express one’s emotions, as well as to regulate and manage them in a healthy way. 

It can be tempting to lash out when you’re hurt or disappointed. But if you want to develop empathy, you’ll need to learn how to master your emotions. 

Cultivating emotional intelligence allows you to maintain a respectful manner even while disagreeing with someone.

People have different points of view, and it can be hard to stay calm and accept those if you don’t have the right emotional tools to handle disagreement. 

Remember to listen without interrupting. Be open to new and different ideas and beliefs. And most importantly, don’t take it personally. 

12) Read, watch, or listen to stories

One of the most effective (and entertaining) ways to develop empathy is to expose yourself to a wide range of stories. 

Thankfully, there are thousands of options with books, shows, and movies. 

Studies show that reading fiction trains us to be creative, flexible, and critical thinkers. Fiction allows us to immerse ourselves in the lives, thoughts, and feelings of characters. 

Meanwhile, nonfiction stories, biographies, and memoirs are excellent sources of knowledge about different cultures, perspectives, and ways of life.  

Poetry is another fantastic way to explore emotions and the human experience in a unique and powerful way. 

With so many genres, you’ll open yourself up to diverse and unique perspectives that help you consider other ways of thinking.

13) Do acts of kindness

The philosopher Sophocles once said, “For kindness begets kindness evermore.”

That’s the beautiful thing about practicing kindness—it’s a ripple that goes outward, spreading in larger and larger circles. 

You might not think much of helping an old lady carry her grocery bags to her car, but you might have made her day and inspired her to extend the same spirit of kindness to another person later. 

Make simple acts of kindness a part of your daily life. It costs nothing yet brings tremendous rewards to the soul. 

Final thoughts

Empathy is a valuable skill that allows you to understand others and create meaningful connections. It can even override noncooperation by making people more generous and forgiving. 

Hopefully, with these tips, you can work on practicing more empathy in your day-to-day life until it becomes a lifelong habit. 

In an increasingly divisive society, we can all stand to be kinder, cooperative, and more accepting toward one another. 

Picture of Roselle Umlas

Roselle Umlas

I am a freelance writer with a lifelong interest in helping people become more reflective and self-aware so that they can communicate better and enjoy meaningful relationships.

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