Empathy, or our ability to understand each other’s feelings and perspectives and show compassion toward them, is one of the building blocks of healthy relationships.
When we are able to stand in another person’s shoes and see life from their point of view - a situation, a belief, a struggle - we are then better equipped to connect, without reactivity, on a human level.
It is, in a way, a sign of generosity; not in the material sense, but rather it’s a spirit of generosity. By leaning into this generosity and learning how to be more empathetic, we cultivate an attitude of openness, and we train our minds to be less judgmental. No wonder empathy can positively impact our relationships, with ourselves and others.
As Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk, puts it: “Empathy does not require that we have been through the same thing as another person, simply that we meet them where they are now.”
Empathy may seem like an all-or-nothing emotion; in a way, that is true. Being able to recognize and relate to the feelings of others does not come in degrees. Like any skill, it is there, or not. But the good news is that empathy is a quality that can be nurtured and learned. Discovering how to become more empathetic is a life skill with benefits extending across all areas of life. Once you master how to have more empathy, you are better able to connect with and understand partners, loved ones, colleagues, and even strangers.
Existing in the world can come with a bit of sensory overload. A lot is going on out there, and it’s no wonder that we become preoccupied with our mind’s chatter. So often, our thoughts and emotions take over, leaving little space for those around us to feel seen or heard. And when we do migrate toward social interaction, we tend to stick to our birds of a feather.
All these behaviors can lead to an empathy deficit — where we’re only exposed to those similar to us — and being able to show compassion for people and perspectives that are different than ours becomes difficult, if not impossible. It can all seem a bit frustrating and disheartening.
Empathy has multiple components: the cognitive, where you understand the person’s thoughts or feelings; the emotional, where you can share these feelings; and the compassionate, where you go beyond sharing concern and actively try to reduce someone’s pain.
If you’re in the process of learning how to be more empathetic in a relationship or everyday life, the main thing to do is give your interactions a makeover: Talk to new people from different backgrounds and walks of life. Actively listen to those around you. Allow yourself to be vulnerable in relationships. Focus on the interests and needs of others. Try not to make assumptions about those around you.
You’ll have stronger relationships, be happier, have higher emotional intelligence, and do better at work.