Empathy means the ability to understand and share the feelings and experiences of another. In other words, empathy is imagining yourself in someone else’s skin: feeling what they feel and seeing yourself and the world from their point of view.

Empathy adds depth to the love you feel for others. With empathy, you see those you love for who they are, not whom you imagine or wish them to be. You appreciate them for their qualities, not just what they do for you, and you acknowledge that even when you share the same experience, you may have different thoughts and feelings. Without empathy, you might assume that their needs, boundaries, and experiences are the same as yours and as a result, you can make assumptions that get you into trouble.

Empathy comes more easily to some, but it’s possible to learn it even if you’re not the most naturally empathetic person. To learn empathy, try this exercise:

  1. Think about your significant other or a friend, family member, or coworker.
  2. What has their mood been like in recent days?
  3. What’s going on in this person’s life that might be making them happy or sad, anxious, or angry?
  4. How are you contributing?
  5. What could you do or say to improve this person’s situation?

For example, let’s say you’re married, and your partner has acted anxious and angry lately. They come home from work agitated, and tension between you runs high. Last night at dinner, they ruminated so much about their day at work that they barely spoke to you, and when they did talk it was to complain about their long commute.

The non-empathetic response would be to snap at them, remind them that your commute is longer, and angrily respond when they don’t ask about your day. That might feel good to do in the moment, and it might be “true,” but is that response helpful? Would it make your relationship better? Would it improve your life or your partner’s life?

No, it would not. Instead, it would make everything much, much worse.

Empathy is developed by regularly listening to another person’s thoughts and feelings–helps to build both closeness and respect. To know if you’re practicing empathy when talking to someone, keep this empathy checklist in mind:

  • Focus your attention on them when they’re talking. Don’t fidget or check your phone or gaze out the window.
  • Indicate that you’re listening by looking them in the eyes when they speak, nodding when you understand, and touching their hand or using another gesture to indicate your connection.
  • Show your respect by hearing them out without sarcasm or rejection. If you feel yourself getting angry or annoyed, ask to take a break. Get a glass of water and drink it slowly to give yourself time to mindfully re-center yourself.
  • Repeat what they say in your own words to make sure you’re hearing them correctly or ask questions if you’re not clear about their meaning.
  • Validate their emotions. Even if you don’t agree with an opinion, you can acknowledge the person’s right to their feelings.

When you act with empathy toward others, others will respond with empathy toward you. With the empathy exercise and the empathy checklist, you’ve got everything you need to learn and practice this crucial social skill.  

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