Empathy is a skill both inherent and external. It’s something we may naturally possess, but it’s also something we can cultivate, nurture, and develop. It’s a skill inherent to emotional intelligence and can help us connect with others in ways we never before imagined.
But just what does empathy mean? How do we acquire it? We’ll explore the benefits and elements of empathy, and show you how you can learn to develop this skill.
What Does Empathy Mean?
Empathy is something that is commonly confused with the related trait of compassion. So, let’s first define compassion, so we can better understand the question of: what does empathy mean?
Compassion is a sympathetic concern for others, particularly when they’re suffering, or in pain. It’s also associated with a feeling of wanting to help or lend a hand to those in trouble. Someone who is compassionate could be said to be an advocate for the less fortunate.
Empathy is different. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the emotions of another person.
A compassionate person who sees someone suffering will feel compelled to help. An empathic person who sees someone suffering will share in the burden of suffering emotionally.
Empathic individuals don’t just feel sympathy or pity toward those in pain, they connect on a deeper, more intrinsic level, and actually feel the emotions the other person is experiencing along with them.
This holds true both for negative emotions and positive ones. Empathic individuals are affected by joy, optimism, and gratitude just much as they are affected by sorrow, grief, and hardship.
Empathic vs. Empathetic: What’s the Difference?
In our exploration of what empathy means, we must momentarily divert to address a common misconception: what does empathy mean — that a person is empathic, or empathetic?
Well, both! What separates the words empathic and empathetic is grammar-related. Both empathic and empathetic are adjectives used to describe someone who exhibits empathy.
The two are relatively interchangeable, the only difference being the age that separates the words. Empathic is the more common variant and was first used in 1909, whereas empathetic was first used in 1932.
You can use either empathic or empathetic to describe someone who displays the trait of empathy.
What Does a Lack of Empathy Look Like?
Does empathy have an opposing force? If so, what might it look like?
A lack of empathy is something that plagues many large communities and societies. The larger the group, the more likely a lack of empathy.
Because of a socio-psychological phenomenon called the diffusion of responsibility.
This phenomenon states that the more people there are, the less likely one individual person will feel responsible for the suffering of any other person.
A lack of empathy in action
A great display of the diffusion of responsibility phenomenon can be found in the following illustration:
You’re driving your car down the freeway. Up ahead, pulled to the side of the curb, is a car with its four-way flashers on.
If you’re traveling a busy highway, you may feel little obligation to pull to the side of the road and offer your assistance.
However, what if you weren’t traveling a busy highway? What if you were driving down a single-lane road with a few of your friends on your way to a hiking trail? The scenery is rural and rustic, and the road is deserted. Except for a single car, pulled to the side of the road with its four-way flashers on.
Would you feel a greater compulsion to slow your vehicle, roll down your window, and see if the people in the pulled over car were okay?
According to the diffusion of responsibility principle: you probably would.
We all display a lack of empathy from time to time, some people more than others., but when we fail to offer others our empathy and genuine care, we don’t just fail them, but fail ourselves.
Empathy is a component of emotional intelligence that can’t be understated. We need empathy to connect with others. The ability to mentally and emotionally put yourself in the shoes of another person helps others feel heard, validated, and respected.
A lack of empathy conveys apathy, disinterest, and condescension. It does not facilitate productive communication and can be detrimental, even toxic, to our personal relationships.
4 Ways to Be More Empathetic In Your Life
We’ve explored what empathy means, and its role in cultivating prosperous, successful connections with others. Now, let’s examine the ways in which you can encourage empathy in your own life.
Here are four integral ways you can nurture empathy, both in yourself and in those around you:
1. Engage in active listening
Active listening can do wonders to facilitate empathy. What is active listening? It’s the practice of paying attention to the words and ideas of others with more than just your ears.
Hearing happens in the ear. Listening happens with the entire body and mind.
Instead of impatiently waiting your turn to speak, and using the time while others talk to plan what you’ll say next, try actively listening. Maintain eye contact with the speaker. Nod your head and smile to demonstrate your attention.
When others feel heard, they’ll want you to feel heard too. It’s a reciprocal action that encourages empathy and communication.
2. Don’t judge a book by its cover
One barrier we often encounter to empathy is judging others at face value, as opposed to actually getting to know them.
Of course, we do need to make some assumptions in our lives in order to get things done. But when we jump to unfair conclusions about others based on a few surface details or facts, we’re really doing much more harm than good.
Take the time to get to know people. Listen to their stories. Relate to their experiences. The doorway to greater empathy will swing wide and you’ll most certainly benefit from its enriching effects.
3. Try to discover commonalities
You likely have more in common with others than you might think! If you’re having trouble connecting with someone, see what common ground you share.
Perhaps you both love the same restaurant, or maybe you share a favorite sport or team. But you won’t be able to find these commonalities unless you show an interest in the well-being of others. You’ll have to be willing to invest your time and energy into discovering what’s important to others while sharing what’s important to you in return.
When we see something in others that we can relate to or connect with, it becomes much easier to display empathy.
4. Be willing to be vulnerable
A huge component of empathy is the ability to be vulnerable. And this is quite a big ask in today’s desensitized and disconnected world.
We can’t connect with others on a deep, emotional level unless we’re willing to be vulnerable. We must be the first to open the door and take the first step.
A great example? Smiling at strangers as you pass them on the street. In bustling, crowded cities, many people won’t glance twice at a person they’re passing on the sidewalk. But you may be surprised to find that all it takes is a little smile, perhaps even a raised hand of acknowledgment, to prompt an empathic, genuine response.
Many people will return your smile, as startled or surprised as it may be. The next time you pass a stranger, smile, nod, and give a sign of acknowledgment. You may just make their day.