Empathy is a powerful tool that you can use to help you connect with other people, which will increase your feelings of oneness. When you can identify a person’s emotional state it gives you more information about that person, which allows you to make a more informed decision about how you’ll interact with or communicate with them. The more you understand someone, the better you’ll communicate with them. Greater empathy could get you a job or the love of your life one day. Empathy can prevent arguments before they start, and end fights before they get out of hand. Why wonder what someone is feeling or thinking when you can know?
Empathy is the ability to identify or sense what another person is feeling. It’s like seeing through someone else’s eyes. Empathy should not be confused with compassion, which is the desire to alleviate the suffering of another, and sometimes contains empathy, but really goes beyond it. You can act compassionately even when you do not empathize with a person’s emotional state or situation.
Some people are naturally empathic, but it’s a skill that can be developed with practice. Here are 5 steps you can take that will lead to greater empathy:
1. Listen intently to others
Do you ever find yourself in an interesting or heated conversation and all you’re doing is thinking about what you’re going to say next without really hearing what the other person is saying? If you’re not listening, how can you understand their points? And if you’re not listening to them, there’s a real good chance they’re not listening to you! The next time you find yourself in a conversation with someone, listen intently. Quiet the chatter in your own mind and really listen to what the other person is saying. You might hear something you would normally have missed. Don’t decide in advance what you’re going to say. Just listen. When you do this, you’ll begin picking up feelings and emotions from the person talking which will help you understand them better. Then when you respond, you’re coming from a place of understanding.
2. Imitate body language
Many years ago Steve and I went to a Tony Robbins Firewalk seminar. During one portion we had to break into groups of three. I found myself paired up with two men I’d never met. Person A was supposed to think of a time in their lives when they were having a strong emotional reaction. They were then supposed to get into that state again. Person B was supposed to exactly model Person A’s physiology. And Person C was there to make sure that Person A and Person B were a total match down to eyelids twitching or blinking. So in our case, Person A got into a state and I had to model his physiology. One of my legs was jumping up and down, my breathing was fast, and my hands were clawing at my legs. Once Person C said we were a match I was supposed to say what emotion I was feeling. I said, “I feel really nervous right now. In fact, I feel like I’m about to jump out of an airplane.” Person A exclaimed, “Oh my God! That’s the exact memory I was thinking of. The first time I jumped out of an airplane.” Not only did I pick up on his emotion correctly, I knew the exact memory he was having. Total stranger. Picked it right out of his brain, or I should say, his physiology.
So what do you think would happen if you modeled or imitated the physiology of the person you’re talking to? Right! You will understand them better, you may even discover you have telepathy. :) Modeling the physiology of other people will increase your empathy.
3. Put yourself in their shoes
One of the best ways to increase your empathy is to imagine what life is like in someone else’s shoes. Most people won’t go to the trouble, but if you can imagine what someone else might be going through, it will increase your level of empathy by a huge factor. The next time you’re with someone who is going through a rough time, or even a really exciting time, take a moment to get out of your own head and imagine what they’re feeling. Then ask them if that’s how they’re feeling. “Hey Johnny, I heard you lost your job. I imagine you’re feeling a depressed and anxious, right?” Or, “Sophia, congratulations on becoming a grandmother. You must be feeling excited!” See what she says.
You can do this with total strangers too. Ever witness a car accident and think, “Glad that wasn’t me,” or “I can’t be late for work so I hope they clear this out of the way fast!” That’s not empathy. Next time take a moment to imagine what the people involved in the accident are feeling. “Wow, I’ll bet that person is really shaken up. I hope he’s alright.” Spare a thought for your fellow man. But for the grace of God, it could have been you. If you offer help, that’s compassion, or what I like to think of as empathy in action.
4. Show understanding
Think about the last time you felt totally and completely understood by someone. Feels good doesn’t it? Return the favor. The next time a friend, child, or your partner is telling you about something that happened to them show that you are listening by repeating back what you heard. “So what you’re telling me is that you feel lonely when I go out every weekend with the boys and you want me to spend more time with you. Is that right?” This is also called empathic listening. It works great in an argument. The next time you’re fighting with someone listen to what they’re saying, don’t interrupt, and then repeat back to them your understanding of what they just said. I cannot tell you how powerful this is. Refrain from making your own point until your partner indicates he or she feels completely understood. They’ll be more willing to hear you speak when you’ve shown you’re willing to understand their point of view first.
5. Expand your awareness
You don’t live in a bubble, even though sometimes it might feel like it. The world doesn’t revolve around you either. You’re sharing it with billions of people. Expand your awareness of what other people are doing. For fun sit down in a crowded place like a movie theater, mall, bookstore, etc. and do some people-watching. You’ll see people who are in a hurry, people arguing with each other, people who are worried, teen boys checking out teen girls, and all manner of behavior. See if you can discern what’s going on.
I’ve often had interesting conversations with strangers when I see them struggling with something (or someone), or if I see them doing something I can totally relate to. I remember standing in my favorite vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles one time and I saw a guy drinking a chocolate shake. Like I’d known him for years I said, “Oh, is that one of those non-dairy chocolate shakes you got there? Those are the best aren’t they?” He smiled and said, “Yeah, they’re sooo good. You should get one.” To which I replied, “Yeah, maybe I will. But I also love their fruit tart so I gotta pick my poison, know what I mean?” He said, “Yeah, their chocolate and vanilla swirl cake is also really good. But I love the shakes too.” Not a terribly meaningful conversation but a connection was made. He wandered around the store a bit and eventually came back to me and asked me out. I told him I was married and off he went.
This sort of interaction comes very naturally to me. Don’t be afraid to say something to a total stranger if you can sense they’ll be receptive to a conversation. I find the best way to treat people is as if we’ve known each other for a long time. I know it seems odd to approach a total stranger like this, but it works. People want to connect. People want to feel understood. People like friendly people. Be friendly people.
Increase your empathy and you increase your power and love. Feel at one with your fellow man. I think most people want to be empathized with. When you show you understand someone’s feelings you honor their human experience, and they’re more likely to honor yours.