how to develop empathy

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A few years ago, my company launched a framework to encourage certain leadership traits among all employees: adaptability, boldness, collaboration, curiosity, determination, and empathy.

When I saw the last one, empathy, I was immediately deflated. For practically my entire life I had told myself I was not empathetic simply because I was not sentimental, I did not cry at movies, and I had no patience for people who frequently complained or found excuses to not live their life fully. 

The senior leadership at the organization was strongly driving this framework. So, challenge accepted! I was going to overcome my ‘lack of empathy’ even if it killed me. I embarked on a journey on how to develop empathy.

I started by educating myself on the concept. The first rule to conquer anything is to remove the unknown, a.k.a. the source of all fear. I began with the Empathy book from the Harvard Business Review Emotional Intelligence series.

The first thing I learned was that empathy was a skill and that it could be learned. There was hope I could find out how to develop empathy.

Empathy is defined as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

According to Daniel Goleman, author of the book Emotional Intelligence, there are three types of empathy.

  • Cognitive empathy – the ability to understand another person’s perspective. People are required to think about feelings instead of experiencing them.
  • Emotional empathy – the ability to sense what someone else feels.
  • Empathic concern – the ability to anticipate what another person needs from you.

The relief I felt at that moment was indescribable. I could actually learn to become empathetic. After all, it turned out I had already nailed cognitive empathy.

Now I knew I could take specific actions to increase my awareness of others’ emotions.

On the other hand, because empathy is connecting to the emotions underpinning an experience, I had to acknowledge those emotions in myself if I wanted to show up in an empathetic manner.

I understood, then, why so many people, myself included, hide behind clichés when they are in uncomfortable and vulnerable situations. 

A close friend tells us ‘I lost my job’ and our immediate response is ‘you’ll find something better right away’, or something along those lines. We hide behind a cookie-cutter response because we are not equipped to deal and/or show the emotion that the experience of losing a job evokes in us.

In her book Dare To Lead, Brene Brown suggests five empathy skills.

  1. To see the world as others see it, or perspective taking
  2. To be nonjudgmental
  3. To understand another person’s feelings
  4. To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings
  5. Mindfulness

“The opposite of anger is not calmness.  It’s empathy.” – Mehmet Oz

Here are some suggestions on how to develop empathy.

1) Become an amazing listener

I wrote a post on how to improve our listening skills. Pay special attention at the changes in the tone of voice, facial expressions and body language, and the type of words the other person is using.

Are they smiling? Do they sound upbeat? Are they using words that are limiting in nature such as impossible, never, etc. or do their words show hope?

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” – Epictetus

2) Be nonjudgmental

This is one of the most difficult things to do. We are constantly judging people and events around us. It is the way our brain works to classify what is a threat and what is safe.

To decrease our level of judgment, we want to become aware of when we are doing it. I did a judgment journal for a few days. It was eye opening. This exercise will not remove judgment altogether. It will increase our awareness of what kind of people or situations we tend to judge more frequently. By knowing, we are able to move away from judgment faster.

Another powerful tool is to validate. We all want to be heard and not feel ridiculous, absurd, or irrelevant.  We may not understand personally what the other person is feeling.

On the other hand, we can appreciate that it is a natural reaction based on their values, background, and personality. At the end of the day, many sources of stress are in the eye of the beholder.

For example, I may find presenting to an audience normal and not stressful at all. For my colleague, it may be a huge source of anxiety and he would rather die. His reaction, from his perspective, is completely reasonable and understandable.

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” – Mother Teresa

3) Shift from being the knower to being the learner

A key element of empathy is to see the world as others see it. Each of us has a set of unique lenses or perspectives we use to see the world based on our experiences, beliefs, and influences from other people around us.

It is impossible to remove our lenses and take someone else’s to see from their viewpoint. What we can do is keep an open and curious mind and learn what the other person’s perspective is.

We ask thoughtful questions, we reflect on the information we are receiving, and we keep in mind that their perspective is not better or worse, it is only different than ours.

“Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.” – Jesse Jackson

4) Become fluent in emotions

I must admit I have a lot of work to do here. It is unfortunate that most of us are not educated in emotions. We can usually identify sad, mad, happy, and scared. These are accepted and most people can understand them.

And even with these four we tend to confuse being mad with being scared most of the time. This tool shows emotions by categories in an interactive manner so we can go deeper into each one to learn more.

Knowing our emotions allows us to connect to those underpinning someone else’s experience and articulate our understanding of those emotions. This helps us identify faster what the other person may need from us (empathic concern).

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler

Fast forward to the present moment, I can no longer say I am not empathetic. I still have a long way to go, and I am immensely enjoying the process of learning and fine tuning how to develop empathy.

What approach do you use to develop empathy? Please, let us know in the comments. You can write in English, Spanish, Portuguese or French.

My mission is to help women transform their inner voice from critic to champion, so they can confidently realize and fulfill their potential achieving what they want most for themselves, their families, communities, organizations, and teams.