What comes to mind when you think of empathy?
For me, empathy is all about removing barriers to understand where someone else is coming from (even if I don’t always agree with them) by choosing to see THEIR feelings, thoughts, and experiences from THEIR perspective versus my own. Similarly, it’s also being understood on the same level by my colleagues, friends, and family members.
Of course, to fully understand and appreciate the role empathy can play in your life, you need to clearly understand what it is (and isn’t), why it’s so important, and how you can make it a part of your day to day life.
So, what is empathy?
Mariam Webster defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences in either the past or present without having the feelings, ideas, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
Unlike sympathy, which often means feeling sorry or bad for someone else’s suffering, empathy requires you to feel and share someone else’s feelings without making it about you. Or in the words of Brené Brown, “it means to be able to see the world as others see it.”
But why is being more empathetic even more important today than before?
Let’s face it; so much has changed in the past year and a half. Within a short period, millions of people had to deal with an overwhelming amount of change. From losing loved ones and facing financial hardships to learning how to adapt to new norms like working remotely for the very first time, there is no shortage of challenging times that we all collectively had to endure in recent months.
But all of this change is much easier to navigate when there’s mutual empathy or understanding of someone else’s feelings or experiences present. Having the ability to understand what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes not only helps you make better decisions as a professional leader but allows you to build better relationships rooted in a deeper understanding, compassion, and trust.
And I noticed the impact leading with empathy had on me firsthand when I started practicing it with my team members. After making the time to get to know my team one on one, I began not only to understand what drives their decisions but think about my choices differently — leading to greater collaboration, a boost in team morale, and even improved productivity.
Of course, I’m not alone in my observation. Research has shown that empathy makes people better managers, workers, family members, and friends all around.
Best of all, I have five easy exercises or, as I like to call them, empath-cises that you can do to be more empathetic.
Five ways to be more empathetic
Make the time to listen actively — active listening is the practice of making the other person feel heard and valued. It often involves listening attentively, paraphrasing back what was said, and withholding any judgment and advice along the way.
Engage with new people — I know you might think you know what someone else’s life is like, but the truth is, you have no idea until you talk to them. So, invite a co-worker or neighbor you don’t know well for an in-person (or virtual) coffee/lunch. Instead of keeping the conversation surface level, challenge yourself to go beyond the small talk and ask them to tell you more about their background, experiences, and routines. You might be surprised by what you discover. For example, maybe you’ll learn the reason your co-worker always leaves early or shows up late is that they’re taking care of an aging family member or a child with special needs or that their commute requires them to take multiple buses just so that they make it home at a decent time. If you’re not comfortable striking up a conversation, try following new people on social media that have different backgrounds from you (like another race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.). And then do the work actually to engage with their content to learn more about them.
Walk the talk — one of the best ways to dip your toes into empathy is to put on someone else’s shoes and walk the talk. In other words, put yourself in the position to experience what someone else is experiencing by attending a support group on an issue you want to understand better, volunteering at your child’s school, or taking on some of the responsibilities your partner often takes on.
Acknowledge your biases — I talk a lot about the importance of acknowledging unconscious biases (and taking action to overcome them) as they pertain to ending racism and being a good ally. However, owning your biases and taking action is also one of the key ingredients to connecting and building meaningful relationships with just about anyone. If you’re not sure where to start, you can ask yourself the following questions:
- When was the last time I had to think about my race, ethnicity, gender, religion, ability level, or sexual orientation?
- When consuming most types of entertainment, how often do I see or hear about characters who represent me?
- How often am I in social settings where most people are different from me?
Take the “I” out of empathy — instead of internalizing someone’s experience and thinking about how you would feel if it happened to you, focus on understanding the experience from their perspective. Doing so changes the dynamic of the conversation and gives you more insight into what someone is truly going through.
Want to share your own experience with empathy or have more tips on being empathetic? Leave a comment below or send it my way at firstname.lastname@example.org.