How to practise empathy: 14 tips to improve your skills

Empathy, simply put, is the capacity to understand the feelings of others.

Some people have an easier time with it than others, but all of us are capable of it.

So if you came here wondering if you can ever be as kind and understanding as some people you might know, take heart!

In this article, I will share with you some things you can do to be more empathetic.

1) Be present

It’s hard to connect with someone if your mind is elsewhere—whether that be the past, the future, or your own fantasies—so if you want to practice empathy, you need to keep yourself grounded in the present.

Pay close attention to the world around you. Be where you are, listen to people when they talk, and observe what changes happen around you.

This will make you more aware of other people and how they act, and possibly how they feel. And this awareness will help you be a more empathetic person.

And if you’re having a hard time keeping yourself grounded, try to practice meditation every now and then. It might just help you.

2) Forget yourself for a while

Empathy is all about putting the spotlight on someone else, on trying to understand them despite what differences you may have.

And, well, you can’t really even begin to do that if you are too focused on yourself. You’ll only end up making things about you, when it should be about them.

And yes, that includes things like thinking about your chores and responsibilities, or how you feel.

Try to set time for those things, but when you’re out—and especially when you’re with other people—try to not be too fixated with your life.

3) Imagine yourself living another person’s life

One reason why we sometimes have issues being empathetic is that we’d naturally see others’ lives through our own.

It’s easy enough to see a celebrity talk about struggling with depression and think “If I had as much money as you, I wouldn’t be depressed!”

Of course, things aren’t that simple.

We all live vastly different lives from one another and don’t really struggle with the same things in the same way.

So when you can, try to listen to people and then try to imagine yourself in their shoes. Try to imagine yourself feeling the things they feel and struggling with their problems.

This alone won’t give you godlike levels of empathy, but it will help you get there.

4) Don’t alienate what you don’t understand

In trying to imagine life in another’s shoes, there are just times when you simply can’t even begin to understand someone no matter how hard you try.

Some people simply have experiences and struggles so far divorced from yours that you simply can’t tie them to any of your own experiences and relate.

And that’s fine—it doesn’t necessarily mean that they might be lying, or that they’re simply being dramatic

If anything, the true measure of empathy is when you can offer understanding and compassion to that which you do not understand.

5) Add empathy to your core values

If you want to be more empathetic, then you will want to do more than just “trying” to be empathetic. What you’ll want to do, instead, is to make empathy one of your core values.

There’s no question about why empathy is a good value to have as a person, and having it as one of your inalienable values will certainly help you become a better person overall.

But how do you actually internalize it?

Well, that’s where the life journal comes in.

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

I tried it and learned a lot about myself.

Go give it a try. It’s free!

6) Listen with both ears

If you’ve ever gotten used to thinking of a reply while someone is still talking, cut that habit.

See, when you do that you aren’t really listening to them. Your mind is so preoccupied with formulating a response that you’re simply not hearing what they’re actually saying… even when you think you are.

Things such as confirmation bias and stereotypes come into play, and your mind begins matching what they’re saying with things you’ve already heard before or had come to expect.

It isn’t easy, and it will take a lot of self-discipline, but it helps to actually engage in discussion with the intention to listen, rather than seek validation.

And, of course, let them finish speaking first before you think of what to say to them in return.

7) Learn to read subtext

People aren’t always going to be straightforward when trying to make themselves heard, especially when their emotions are riding high.

And no, telling them “You’re emotional! Calm down!” is not the least bit helpful. If anything, it will only make them mad.

So most of the time, you’ll have to do a little bit of thinking to understand what’s actually going on beneath the surface.

Consider, for example, hearing a friend of yours complain that her sister’s son is annoying her. This might strike you as odd, given that you know her to be quite good with children.

But oh, it might be because she’s been trying to have kids for a while, and you both know she hasn’t been able to for a while now.

So you see, a person’s words won’t always explicitly show you what’s in their hearts, but it can give you a peek… if you were to look.

8) Learn about body language

Communication is more than just words.

If you want to connect with someone better, then you need to pay attention to what they’re expressing with their body.

Consider, for example, being right next to a person who has tears in their eyes and is clearly barely holding it together.

They might tell you “oh, I’m fine!” but you can clearly see that they’re not okay.

It’s not always that obvious, of course. A friend of yours might have a habit of brushing their hair when they’re nervous.

Most people probably won’t spot it, but if they keep on fiddling with their hair while talking about, say, how they’re about to meet their ex, you can be sure that they’re nervous about it.

Reading body language will help you read people better, and thus you’re likely to be more empathetic.

9) Remember the times you fucked up

So, one thing that can really mess up any attempts from you to relate to someone or to empathize with them is if you have managed to get an “I can do no wrong!” kind of mentality.

You might be watching a documentary about a crash happening because the pilots panicked and made mistakes, for example. You might even think “that’s a stupid mistake, I know I wouldn’t do that!”

But think about it—are you really so faultless that you can judge other people so easily for their mistakes? Can you truly say that you will never make that mistake?

The truth is that you will. Even the best professionals make mistakes after years doing the same thing over and over again.

So eat a little humble pie and remind yourself of the times you fucked up. In fact, get a notebook and write about them. Keep it with you all the time if you can.

10) Recall the many times people have forgiven you

And since we’re on the matter of fuck-ups, it’s worth looking into the other side of the coin—forgiveness.

That is to say, think of the times when you messed up, and people were there to forgive you and treat you kindly.

Think of how they stuck by you and offered understanding instead of judging you and shunning you.

Then think about how you felt towards them. And now, think about how you can be that person for someone else.

Everyone makes mistakes, and people have done well for you by offering you comfort. Surely you can pay it forward and be the gentle, forgiving person that people deserve.

But of course, when you know that someone is abusing your kindness, you don’t need to make yourself a martyr and bleed yourself dry for their sake. Set boundaries, and stick by them.

11) Remind yourself that everyone’s fighting a battle

It’s easy to get fixated on your own problems. When you look at others, you then feel like they’re lucky for looking like they’re free from any problems whatsoever.

But hey, even if it might not look like it, you should know that everyone has problems. I mean EVERYONE.

You might not know who looks like they’re happy on the outside, but are struggling with their own minds and are close to giving up.

I know this is grim, but a lot of people are caught by surprise when they hear that their “jolly, carefree friend” is just gone one day.

So the least you can do to help put people at ease is by simply being kind. Try to offer kindness, even towards people who don’t look like they need any more kindness or cheering up.

You might just save a life, too.

Hack Spirit 4 How to practise empathy: 14 tips to improve your skills

12) Don’t be judgmental

It’s easy to judge people and move on. What’s hard is actually trying to understand them…but that’s what we all should be doing.

You might have heard people talk about how the homeless are just “lazy” and want handouts, for example. Or that they’re poor simply because they aren’t working hard enough.

But the reality is that they might have gone homeless because life simply dealt them a bad hand, like rent simply going up too high for their salary to support.

In fact, a lot of people are just one or two missed paychecks away from homelessness and don’t realize it.

That’s why, whenever possible, you should try to avoid judging people. You don’t know why they are the way they are, and what hardships they’ve lived through.

This isn’t exactly an easy tip to execute.

Being judgmental is part of human nature, and it requires effort to resist it. But thankfully, everything else in this article will help you get better at this.

13) Imagine that it’s their last day being alive

And I don’t mean that you should go to their home and start confessing everything you’ve ever felt about them, of course. That’d be silly.

But what I mean is, well, so many of us say nothing about how much we care about someone until we’re about to lose them or… in some cases, when we’re already dead.

Think about how many people show up at a funeral to cry and show their regrets, and how many of those people said nothing while that person was still alive.

This is perhaps a bit morbid, but when you’re talking to someone, try to ask yourself if you would regret what you said if they were to die tonight.

This is especially useful if you have a short fuse.

14) Act like everyone’s a VIP

Something that will help you greatly is if you simply treat everyone like VIPs. After all, why should some people be treated better than others—we’re all human, aren’t we?

And we all deserve to be respected. Period.

Society might tell you that, say, the local senator or billionaire are people you need to value more than the ordinary person. That you should respect CEOs more than janitors.

But see, most of the reasons why rich people are rich and poor people are poor is because some people are born with all the opportunities in the world… while others aren’t.

We are all born the same, and when we die all of these things that make people “respectable”—their wealth, their looks, their fame—die with us.

So disregard status, disregard wealth. Everyone is a VIP in the truest sense of the word—a very important person.

Last words

Empathy isn’t always easy to make a core part of your personality. But it’s actually what the world needs to keep going.

Times are tough, a lot of people are suffering in silence. So, as much as we can,  let’s be a little kinder, a little more compassionate.

We only have one life to live after all, and better to live that life being someone others enjoy being around rather than someone who brings more misery to others.

As the song goes, let’s try a little tenderness.

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Picture of Tina Fey

Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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