How to learn empathy in 5 steps
Empathy is sometimes perceived like an innate skill you either have or not, but it’s actually one that you can , and in my opinion—must — learn, in order to live (and love) better, to make two-ways communication more meaningful, and to deeply connect with others.
“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” — Alfred Adler
How can we learn and practice this beautiful ability in our daily social interactions? Here are 5 simple steps to try out:
1. Ask once, then again, then one more time
“How are you?” How many times do we hear and pronounce this sentence every day, without really meaning it? Without really listening to the reply? If empathy means understanding what others are feeling, this is were you start. By asking “how are you?”, for real. And as others are accustomed too to the habitual use of this empty form of salutation, they might be tempted to simply reply “fine” and move on. Is at that moment that you ask again: “How are you? Like really, how are you feeling?”. I bet they will first look at you with surprise.
2. Tune in and just listen
When they finally open up and start talking, just listen. Sounds easy but it really isn’t. This is because as rational human being, we tend to immediately respond to problems with actions: we either suggest a solution, or a way to get over or react about it. This is more than OK when someone is asking for a practical advice, but not when it comes to understand and respond with empathy to someone else’s feelings. In order to understand, you need to tune into others, and just receive what they are sending over to you.
3. Embrace a different perspective
While sympathy is looking at others from our world and feel sorry or sad for them, empathy is looking at the world with someone else’s eyes. This is when you start listening with the other person’s ears and feeling with their heart. Feelings are universal. So even if you haven’t lived the same situation someone else found themselves in, you can connect to the feeling behind it, as you must certainly have experienced it before. Put yourself in their shoes, imagine or remember how that feeling feels, and feel it together with them.
4. Hold your judgement
Empathy is not about approval, is about understanding even when you can’t fully understand. In order to do so, it’s important to let go of any judgement and assumptions we might have about what the other person is going through, or the importance or legitimation of their feelings. Try to simply stay present in the moment and embrace and accept whatever is being shared.
5. Offer what they need
Empathy is not just passive listening, is a powerful way to offer someone a soothing comfort while they experience overwhelming emotions. But the comfort is such only if it responds and is tailored to their specific needs. And what someone needs to be comforted, varies not only depending on the person, but also on the specific situation. So now it’s your turn to step in, and ask the most important questions of all: “What can I do for you? How can I support you?What do you need from me?”. Because empathy is not abstract, it’s not a rule to blindly apply: it has to do with me and you. So I can share the basics to practice it, but you are the one that will make all the difference.