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August 23, 2019

Empathy: 6 Ways It Can Improve Your Life

The benefits of empathy

Empathy is powerful.  It benefits not only the recipient, but also the giver.If you are wondering, "Why should I care about empathy?  What kind of impact can it have on my life and the people around me?" here are just a few of the benefits of empathy:

  1. Increased satisfaction
  2. Increased happiness
  3. Can inoculate you against depression*
  4. Helps you adjust to new circumstances
  5. Builds bridges and connections
  6. Reduces stress

*Note: experiencing empathy cannot prevent depression but it can potentially lessen its prevalence and intensity in your life.

Standford psychologist and director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory, Jamil Zaki, explains some of the benefits of empathy this way:

"In many cases, empathy benefits all parties involved.  So for instance, patients of empathic doctors are more satisfied with their care but are also more likely to follow doctors' recommendations, which is important for things like preventative care.  And spouses of empathic partners are happier in their marriages.

But one thing that I think people don't realize as much is that people who experience empathy for others also benefit. It's not just receiving it, but giving it helps us too.  So people who are relatively high in empathy, for instance, are less likely to become depressed.  Feeling empathy for others reduces our stress.  And adolescents who are able to pick out other people's emotions accurately are better adjusted during middle school" (Zaki, Hidden Brain podcast Empathy Gym 7/29/19).

What is empathy?

Okay, it sounds like empathy is a great thing.  But, what exactly is it?

I would colloquially define empathy as caring about and understanding others' feelings and experiences.  There are actually different facets of empathy.  The following are the three types of empathy identified by psychologists:

Types of Empathy

  1. Emotional Empathy: feeling others' feelings with them
  2. Cognitive Empathy: understanding what someone else is feeling and why they're feeling that way
  3. Compassion: feeling concern for others' and desire for their well-being to improve

Each of them is important, and can balance each other.  For example, if you have emotional empathy for everyone you meet and everyone you see suffering on the news, you will quickly develop compassion fatigue.  And compassion fatigue can lead to not caring at all because you have no energy left to care, and possibly no hope that things can improve.  Or, you might become so overwhelmed by feeling the other persons' emotions that you shut down.

Emotional empathy does not mean that you are responsible for picking up others' feelings and feeling them yourself.  This can lead to unhealthy boundaries, such as enmeshment, and leave you feeling depleted, anxious, powerless, or responsible for managing the other person's feelings for them.  A healthy way to practice emotional empathy is to be emotionally present with the other person's feelings but not take them on yourself.  You can learn more about how to give the gift of being present here.

Cognitive empathy is one way to balance out emotional empathy, so you can take a step back and understand where someone is coming from, and display compassion by caring what happens to them without depleting all of your emotional reserves.  If on the other hand, you only show cognitive empathy for a partner or friend, that person may not fully experience that you care about them and what they're going through.

An important part of cognitive empathy is understanding others, and this is considered by some experts to be the first element of empathy (Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence).

Compassionate empathy is the fruit of these two types of empathy.  It is effective empathy in action.  This might take the form of a caring word, a shoulder to cry on, or practical help.  It is important to be aware of how the person wants to receive support and help.  Emotional and cognitive empathy can help you identify this so you're not over-helping, or helping in a way that the person doesn't want.  For example, you may want to help by giving practical solutions while the person just wants emotional support before figuring it out on their own.  When you are ready to put compassionate empathy into practice, don't assume you know what the person needs.  Ask them before acting.  This is a way of giving them respect.  A great Christian resource for compassionate empathy is Henri Nouwen's book Compassion.

Which type of empathy do you gravitate towards?  Is there one you shy away from?

"Different brain systems support emotional and cognitive empathy and empathic concern.  And different groups of people struggle with different flavors of empathy.  People with autism spectrum disorders, for instance, struggle sometimes to understand others, their cognitive empathy, but don't struggle as much to share other people's emotions or care about what other people feel.  Individuals with psychopathy have the opposite profile.  They're often perfectly able to understand what other people feel, but they don't share those emotions" (Zaki, Hidden Brain podcast Empathy Gym 7/29/19).In summary, we could say the three types of empathy are:

  1. Understanding others
  2. Sensing their feelings and emotions
  3. Taking a genuine interest in them and their concerns (Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence)

Read more at:

How do I develop empathy?

Understand feelings

To care about and understand others' feelings, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of feelings.  Some people have a good understanding of their feelings.  Some have a better understanding of others' feelings, but less awareness of their own.  And some people would rather not bother with emotions at all.  No matter which of these categories you fall into, feelings are an important part of what it means to be human and it is imperative to have an understanding of common emotions.  You can find a great diagram for common emotions here.


It is also important to develop the skill of perspective-taking.  We commonly refer to this as "putting yourself in someone else's shoes" in order to understand their perspective and feelings.

A great way to learn to do this is by reading novels.  You are seeing the world through the protagonist's perspective - their interpretations, feelings, etc.  I keenly remember reading The Good Earth by Pearl Buck as a child and really understanding on a visceral level what famine means.  I learned the inner workings of an emotionally hurt child by reading the Elizabeth Gail series.  Before that, I might have interpreted the child's lashing out as being mean, but after seeing things from one such child's perspective, I understood that she wanted desperately to accept the love and support offered to her, but didn't know how.  Such books helped me consider the perspective and needs of kids I met in person.

A more extroverted way to experience a similar perspective-taking is through participating in a drama class or play.  You get to take on and act out the feelings of different people.  You create your own inside view into another's experience, and get to feel what it's like for others to react to you in this space as well.

Poetry is another way of increasing empathy.  As Tuesday Ryan-Hart shares: "Poetry is one of our most vivid channels for empathy.  It helps us reckon with the human experience and figure out how to live among each other.  It grapples with unanswerable questions and, in all its forms—lauded and richly-awarded books, ferocious spoken word performances, beloved songs and historic speeches—it rallies our attention."

Understand the impact of identity and belonging

We are more likely to be empathetic towards people we consider like us.  We are less empathetic towards those we consider "other."  This is often called the "us vs. them" dichotomy.  You may be able to increase your compassion for someone if you can find a way to put them in the "us" category.

A study Zaki references in his talk gives us a helpful example.  Soccer players who wrote about why they loved their team showed increased empathy for someone who was on, or supported, their team.  This was helpful, but still limiting, since they did not show compassion for soccer players from other teams.  However, when they wrote about why they loved soccer in general, their empathy expanded to include all soccer players (Zaki, Hidden Brain podcast Empathy Gym 7/29/19).

Writing (or even thinking or talking about) what you have in common with or like about group of people can increase your identification with them, and your compassion for them.  However, you will need to be aware that it might make you less likely to be compassionate towards people outside of that group and compensate for that.

Communication skills

Learning good communication skills is also important for developing empathy.  The steps pertinent to empathy are:

  1. Active listening
  2. Clarifying
  3. Reflecting

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply" (Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change).  

Here is how you practice these skills: one person expresses everything they're thinking and feeling about a particular situation.  The other person's only job at that point is to listen intently (active listening) and be able to express back to that person what they heard (reflecting).  If helpful, the person can also ask clarifying (non-judmental) questions.  The goal is for the listener to be able to convey what the speaker said in a way that the speaker agrees that they are heard and understood.  Then, they can reverse roles.  This is a far cry from the listener forgoing listening in favor of coming up with their rebuttal, devaluing or dismissing the speaker, or becoming defensive.  This activity can build bridges of understanding, respect, and connection and I invite you to practice it with someone in your life with whom you want to improve your connection.  You can learn more about these communication skills here.

Meet your needs

Empathy is at the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.  The sense of belonging and identity referenced in the soccer example (identifying as a team fan or as a soccer-enthusiast) is a few rungs below empathy, and important to develop first in order to develop empathy.  If you are secure in your sense of belonging, you will be able to extend empathy to those inside and outside your group without feeling threatened or reverting to tribalism.  Confidence is on the rung in between belonging and empathy, and also important to develop in order to have empathy for others without feeling that your own well-being is threatened.I have seen so many people have a dramatic increase in perspective and empathy after doing EMDR on a painful memory.  Once their pain was addressed, they had the space to consider the perspective of others involved.  Having empathy requires addressing your own feelings, pain, and needs in the situation.In sum, meeting your own basic needs is an important step to developing consistent empathy for others.  You can read more about how to do this on my blog series on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which starts here.

An Obstacle to Empathy (and how to overcome it)

Empathy is not the same as agreement.  I find that too often people withhold empathy because they are afraid of communicating that they agree with someone's position.  You do not have to agree with someone to give them the respect of hearing and understanding where they are coming from.  By giving them that respect, you are building a bridge of understanding, communication, and compassion.  For example, if you are able to recognize that someone holds a certain view because they feel threatened or fearful, you can have cognitive empathy and compassion for them, and want them to not feel that way anymore.  You might even find some common ground.

To study empathy further, you can read Zaki's book "The War For Kindness: Building Empathy In A Fractured World."

If you'd like to explore how to parent in ways that promote empathy, I will be speaking on "Raising Kids to Choose Empathy and Authenticity" at First United Methodist Church (Pensacola) on Wednesday, September 25 at 6pm.

I look forward to continuing this conversation about empathy with you.