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

Method #4: Turn the Tables

We instruct little kids to do this all the time: “How would you feel if Dylan took your excavator before you were done?”  It’s cliche, but put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand their actions.  Turning the tables is a simple but powerful window into the inner workings of their mind.

For instance, if you can’t figure out why your sister won’t quit drinking, bought that ridiculous car, or puts up with her irritating significant other, ask “What is she getting out of this?”  

Behavior exists because it gets reinforced, so to answer “Why?” imagine yourself in her place.  You might see that her drinking is a respite from a lousy job and even lousier marriage, the car makes her feel young again, or she's stuck with someone who treats her badly because she thinks no one else would love her.  

Which brings us to...

Method #5: Use These 3 Magic Phrases (But Only if They're True)  

  • “I get it.”
  • “That makes sense.”
  • “Of course you feel that way.”

In total, these phrases equal 12 words, but if spoken truthfully, they will change your relationships.  

What these phrases have in common is validation, which is the result of accurate empathy.  If you can, without judgment, see your sister's point of view on the wine, the car, or the annoying significant other, your sister will feel understood and supported, even if she knows you don’t necessarily approve. And that will pave the way for a deeper, more trusting relationship.

Method #6: Let Your Heart Break

This one I’m borrowing from Melinda Gates, who in Stanford’s 2014 Commencement address, said, “In the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you'll come to see suffering that will break your heart.  When it happens, and it will, don't turn away from it; turn toward it. That is the moment when change is born.” 

In short, allow yourself to witness pain and injustice and think “That could have been me,” not just to thank your lucky stars, but to inspire you to change what is written in them.

If you want to hear more, I wrote a full-length guest episode for Grammar Girl about the literary fiction study - check it out here.

How have you implemented more empathy in your life? Let us know in Comments below or on the Savvy Psychologist Facebook page. 


Hendriksen, E., Williams, E., Sporn, N., Greer, J., DeGrange, A. & Koopman, C.  (2015).  Worried together: A qualitative study of shared anxiety in patients with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer and their family caregivers.  Supportive Care in Cancer, 23, 1035-41.

Kidd, D.C. & Castano, E. (2013).  Reading literary fiction improves Theory of Mind.  Science, 342, 377-380.


Empathy image courtesy of Shutterstock.;


About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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