6 Ways to Improve Your Empathy

The latest in empathy research finds that our genes may not be selfish after all.  What’s more, good empathy skills make us happier and healthier.  (Plus it’s the closest you’ll get to being telepathic).  This week, the Savvy Psychologist reveals 6 ways to put more "oomph" in your empathy.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #062
man has empathy for pregnant partner

Empathy is getting a lot of press these days.  But with a culture of extreme individualism where online interactions outnumber in-person conversations, it can be hard to cultivate an empathetic mind-meld.

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But the benefits of strong empathic skills are legion: first, you’ll understand the motivations and needs of people around you. People’s actions, no matter how wacky, will start to make sense (“Well, duh, if that happened to me I’d probably act like that, too.”), which will in turn make you less judgy and defensive - and that will make you less stressed out.  

Next, you’ll also be able to see how your words and actions affect others based on their (sometimes very subtle) reactions. You’ll be able to inspire and motivate others by tapping into what they truly value and want (which is way healthier than threats or manipulation).

But fundamentally, you want to increase your empathy because it lets you read minds!

It’s not exactly telepathy, but it’s the next best thing.  By listening closely to another person’s words (including what they’re not saying) and attending to their facial expression, tone of voice, body language, and - especially - their eyes, you can figure out what they’re feeling and thinking.

Types of Empathy

Speaking of feeling and thinking, there are two types of empathy.  The first is affective empathy, which is feeling another person’s emotions. Many of us well up when we see someone else cry, or feel on edge when someone close to us is stressed.  My own 2015 research finds that terminally ill patients and their closest family member rise and fall together - when one is feeling strong or feeling worried, the other usually is as well.

The second type of empathy is cognitive empathy, which is knowing what another person might think, intend, believe, or want.  This is also called perspective taking or theory of mind and is necessary in everything from negotiating a salary to planning a surprise party to motivating staff.  

Those of us with a natural ability to feel someone else’s pain, awkwardness, or disappointment might sometimes find empathy to be a distressing burden, but the rewards far outweigh the costs.  Because fundamentally, empathy is connection with others, something we all need at least a little of to be happy and healthy (well, with the possible exception of psychopaths).

So how can we build our empathetic muscle?  Here are 6 ways to practice:

Method #1: Read More (Especially Literature)

A 2013 study in the uber-prestigious journal Science found that reading not just fiction, but specifically literature, improves a skill called theory of mind, which is basically cognitive empathy: the ability to know what others think, intend, believe, or want. 

In the study, participants were assigned to read one of three types of writing: literary fiction (which included finalists for the National Book Award or a short story by Chekhov), popular fiction (which consisted of the top-selling authors on Amazon, like think Danielle Steel), or non-fiction.  A fourth thumb-twiddling group was assigned to read nothing at all.  

After they read, the participants filled out questionnaires that measured, among other things, empathy.  And those who read literary fiction did significantly better than those who read genre fiction, non-fiction, or nothing.

Why?  The researchers thought that literary fiction might win out over genre fiction because genre fiction tends to have more archetypal plot lines and characters - the girl next door, the prodigal son, the high-powered but lonely CEO - than literary fiction, and therefore doesn’t require us to infer or interpret as deeply as literary fiction.  In short, with all due respect to James Patterson and John Grisham, genre fiction is more predictable, and therefore requires less of an empathic leap.  The complicated characters of literary fiction, on the other hand, might work those empathic muscles more strongly.

Method #2: Be a Mirror

Listening is a skill we could all stand to hone.  Think of the times you’ve tried to carry on a conversation while engrossed in a menu, your own thoughts, or of course, your phone.The opposite of distracted half-hearing is active listening, which is a communication technique in which the listener paraphrases what they think the speaker just said.  There’s no judgment or approval, just a summary to demonstrate understanding.  If the listener is off base, they try again.  

For example, your thrifty partner might say to you, “It freaks me out to come home to a pile of Amazon boxes - we’re not made of money, you know.” While your first instinct might be to roll your eyes, that only fans the flames.  Instead, to practice active listening, you could simply paraphrase, “You’re worried about our online spending.”

It might seem stilted to you, but it will be a pleasant surprise to your partner.  Showing you’re listening not only cuts down on misunderstanding and defensiveness, it’s also demonstrates a true willingness to talk.

Method #3: Question the Golden Rule

I know your parents seared this into your brain, but with Mom’s permission, let’s tweak it just a little. Instead of “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” let’s try “Treat others as they would like to be treated.”  

The simplest example of this is picking out a birthday present.  When you select a gift for someone, you think about what they might like (as least I hope you do), rather than picking out something you like.  For example, you'd get Bill O’Reilly’s latest book for your Fox News-loving friend, even if you get your news solely from Jon Stewart (or vice versa).

Of course, this can be applied to way more than reading material.  With strangers or people you don’t know well, you can fall back on Mom’s version of the Golden Rule. But for the important people in your life, treat them as they would like to be treated.  


About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
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