The following article is an adapted excerpt from my new book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence.
We often hear about the need for more empathy in the world. No doubt you’ve witnessed this in one form or another: The manager who can’t relate to the struggles of his team, and vice versa. Husbands and wives who no longer understand each other. The parent who has forgotten what teenage life is like…and the teen who can’t see how much his parents care.
But if we yearn for others to consider our perspective and feelings, why do we often fail to do the same for them?
For one thing, it takes time & effort to understand how and why others feel the way they do. Frankly, we aren’t willing to invest those resources for too many people. And even when we’re motivated to show empathy, doing so isn’t easy.
But learn we must; otherwise, our relationships deteriorate. As one person remains fixated on the other’s failings, the result is a mental and emotional standoff where everyone sticks to their guns, no problems get solved, and situations appear irreconcilable. But taking the initiative to show empathy can break the cycle–because when a person feels understood, they are more likely to reciprocate the effort and try harder, too.
The result? A trusting relationship where both parties are motivated to give the other person the benefit of the doubt and forgive minor failings.
So, what is empathy exactly? And how can you develop yours?
What empathy is (and what it’s not)
Today, you’ll get different definitions for empathy, depending on who you ask. But most would agree to some variation of the following: Empathy is the ability to understand and share the thoughts or feelings of another.
To feel and display empathy, it’s not necessary to share the same experiences or circumstances as others. Rather, empathy is an attempt to better understand the other person by getting to know their perspective.
Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman break down the concept of empathy into the following three categories.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. Cognitive empathy makes us better communicators, because it helps us relay information in a way that best reaches the other person.
Emotional empathy (also known as affective empathy) is the ability to share the feelings of another person. Some have described it as “your pain in my heart.” This type of empathy helps you build emotional connections with others.
Compassionate empathy (also known as empathic concern) goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings: it actually moves us to take action, to help however we can.
To illustrate how these three branches of empathy work together, imagine that a friend has recently lost a close family member. Your natural reaction may be sympathy, a feeling of pity, or sorrow. Sympathy may move you to express condolences or to send a card–and your friend may appreciate these actions.
But showing empathy takes more time and effort. It begins with cognitive empathy: imagining what the person is going through. Who did they lose? How close were they to this person? Besides feelings of pain and loss, how will their life now change?
Emotional empathy will help you not only understand your friend’s feelings, but share them somehow. You try to connect with something in yourself that knows the feeling of deep sorrow and emotional pain. You might remember how it felt when you lost someone close, or imagine how you would feel if you haven’t had that experience.
Finally, compassionate empathy moves you to take action. You might provide a meal, so your friend doesn’t need to worry about cooking. You could offer to help make necessary phone calls or do some chores around the house. Maybe you could go over to help keep them company; or, if they need to be alone, you could pick up the children and watch them for a while.
This is just one example of how empathy works, but every day will bring new opportunities to develop this trait. In fact, every interaction you share with another person is a chance to see things from a different perspective, to share their feelings, and to help.
Building cognitive empathy
Building cognitive empathy is about making educated guesses. We often misinterpret physical movements and facial expressions; a smile can mean joy or exuberance, but it can also signal sadness.
So, before you engage with another person, consider what you know about them, and be willing to learn more. But keep in mind that your interpretation of another person’s mood, behavior, or thinking will be influenced by your prior experience and unconscious bias. Your instincts may be wrong. Don’t be quick to assume or rush to judgment.
After you engage with others, take time to consider any feedback they provide (written, verbal, body language). Doing so will help you better understand not only others and their personalities, but also how they perceive your thoughts and communication style.
Building emotional empathy
To achieve emotional empathy requires going further. The goal is to actually share the feelings of the other person, leading to a deeper connection.
When a person tells you about a personal struggle, listen carefully. Resist the urge to judge the person or situation, to interrupt and share your personal experience, or to propose a solution. Instead, focus on understanding the how and why: how the person feels, and why they feel that way.
Next, it’s important to take time to reflect. Once you have a better understanding of how the person feels, you must find a way to relate.
Ask yourself:When have I felt similar to what this person has described?
Friend and colleague Dr. Hendrie Weisinger, bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence at Work, illustrates it perfectly:
“If a person says, ‘I screwed up a presentation,’ I don’t think of a time I screwed up a presentation–which I have [done] and thought, no big deal. Rather, I think of a time I did feel I screwed up, maybe on a test or something else important to me. It is the feeling of when you failed that you want to recall, not the event.”
Of course, you’ll never be able to imagine exactly how another person feels. But trying will get you a lot closer than you would be otherwise.
Once you find a way to connect with the other person’s feelings, and have a more complete picture of the situation, you’re ready to show compassionate empathy. In this step, you take action to help however you can.
Exercising compassionate empathy
Begin by asking the other person directly what you can do to help. If they are unable (or unwilling) to share, ask yourself: What helped me when I felt similarly? Or: What would have helped me?
It’s fine to share your experience or make suggestions, but avoid conveying the impression that you’ve seen it all or have all the answers. Instead, relate it as something that has helped you in the past. Present it as an option that can be adapted to their circumstances, instead of an all-inclusive solution.
Remember that what worked for you, or even others, may not work for this person. But don’t let that hold you back from helping. Simply do what you can.
Putting it into practice
The next time you struggle to see something from another person’s point of view, strive to remember the following:
- You don’t have the whole picture. At any given time, a person is dealing with many factors of which you’re unaware.
- The way you think and feel about a situation may be very different from one day to the next, influenced by various elements, including your current mood.
- Under emotional stress, you may behave very differently than you think you would.
Keeping these points in mind will affect how you view the other person and influence how you deal with them. And since each of us goes through our own struggle at one point or another, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll need that same level of understanding.
Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.
A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.