What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to see things from another's perspective and feel their emotions. Putting yourself in another person’s shoes might lead you to act with compassion and do what you can to improve their situation. In doing so, you can reduce the other person’s distress as well as your own.
Imagine you come home to find out your spouse or partner is ill. Even if you were having a good day, you would suddenly feel their distress and tend to their needs. If a friend is angry about the way a boss treated them, you’d likely share their sense of frustration. Maybe you can’t solve their problem, but you can understand that they need to vent their emotions.
Empathy isn't just about hardships. When your child is excited about something, you feel their joy. When your friend is laughing at a joke, you experience their amusement. Empathy allows you to deepen your relationships as you connect with friends’ and loved ones’ thoughts and feelings, and they connect with yours.
Empathy can extend to people you don’t know as well. If you saw someone sitting alone at a party, for example, you might empathize with their loneliness and chat with them. If you saw images of other people suffering on the other side of the world, you might be moved to donate resources to help alleviate their suffering. On the other hand, when you see a televised crowd roaring with joy, you might feel your spirits rise. Their delight becomes your delight.
Empathy vs sympathy
While the two words are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between sympathy and empathy. Unlike empathy, sympathy doesn’t involve sharing what someone else feels. When you’re sympathetic, you care about the person’s problem or misfortune and feel sorry for their suffering, but you don’t fully feel their pain.
When a friend experiences a bereavement, for example, if you’re sympathetic you understand why they feel sad and are grieving, and feel sorry for their loss. If you’re empathetic, though, you can also feel the grief they’re going through. Sympathy is more of a feeling of pity for the person, while empathy is more a feeling of compassion for them.
The different components of empathy
Researchers tend to recognize at least two components of empathy: affective and cognitive.
Affective (or emotional) empathy is the ability to feel what others are feeling. If your spouse is stressed and sad, you might mirror those emotions. If a friend is jovial and upbeat, you might find yourself grinning as their happiness seems contagious.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize and understand another person’s mental state. It gives you insight into the other person’s perspective and emotions. If you recognize that your spouse is angry, you can predict that your joke isn’t going to land well. If you can tell that your friend is feeling helpless, you won’t be surprised by their sudden outburst.
These two components of empathy require different neural networks in your brain. So, it's possible to have high cognitive empathy but low emotional empathy and vice versa.
Empathy differences between sexes
Research shows that women are more likely to report feeling sad when they hear about the suffering of others. This matches the results of a recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, which showed that female brains appear more receptive to feeling other people's pain. However, the study showed no differences between the sexes in cognitive empathy.
Why is empathy so important?
Empathy has an important role to play in your life. First, it can strengthen your bonds with the people you interact with. As you try to understand others, you also make them feel heard and understood. They’re then more likely to take the time to empathize with you as well. This deepens your relationship and promotes that feeling of connection that all of us desire.
Research shows that having a strong social support network tends to increase a person's happiness. Because empathy leads to better relationships, it can be a key component to building a more satisfying life.
Empathy can also:
Motivate prosocial behavior. Empathy can motivate you to take actions that improve the lives of others. These actions might include anything from donating to a charity to encouraging a friend to seek help for alcohol abuse to simply comforting someone with a hug.
Guide decision-making. In social situations, empathy can help you decide on the wisest course of action. If your spouse seems stressed out from work, you can infer that it’s not the best time to ask them to take on more responsibilities.
Reduce burnout. The results of one study suggest that empathy might be useful in reducing burnout. This is because empathy allows for more effective communication and collaboration, even in difficult work environments.
Help diffuse conflict. If you're in a bitter argument with your coworker, for example, empathizing with them can prevent you from being overly critical or needlessly cruel. Once you have a better understanding of someone else’s perspective, it’s easier to move on to proposing a compromise.
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Signs you or a loved one lack empathy
Empathy isn't something that you either have or don't have. Some people have a high degree of empathy, while others have lower empathy.
If your empathic abilities are on the lower end of the spectrum, you might feel indifferent to other people’s pain. For example, if a friend’s house is burglarized, you might say or think, “Well, that wouldn’t have happened if you were more careful.” Or maybe you look down on family members who are dealing with financial hardship and chalk it up to their failure to work hard. You might even hold the misguided belief that bad things like that would never happen to you.
Low empathy can also lead you to believe that the people around you are too sensitive. You might constantly be surprised that your friends are offended by your jokes. Maybe you don’t understand how your words and actions wound your loved ones. This can lead to all sorts of arguments and misunderstandings.
If you have low empathy, you might have a lack of patience when dealing with people who are in distress. Perhaps your go-to piece of advice for other people is, “Just get over it.” Despite this, you tend to hold grudges and don’t forgive people for mistakes. You never seem to have the time or bandwidth to listen to other people’s perspectives or reflect on their emotional states.
Recognizing a lack of empathy in others
If a loved one is lacking in empathy, you’re likely to have some turbulent interactions. They might be impatient and overly critical, leading you to feel as if you’re walking on eggshells.
[Read: Dealing with Difficult Family Relationships]
You might notice that they’re constantly dismissing your problems or tuning out when you talk about your feelings. You might feel unheard or start to question if you really are being too sensitive. Realize that their lack of empathy is an issue only they can correct.
Causes of lack of empathy
In some circumstances, it’s natural to feel low empathy. You might have a hard time empathizing with someone who bullied you or mistreated your loved ones. This could just be a situational lack of empathy and not reflective of how well you empathize with people in general.
Certain experiences might decrease your empathy. For example, some research indicates that empathy can decline as medical students go through training. This might be due to burnout, as med students struggle with stressful workloads and increased responsibilities. Med students might also use emotional detachment to protect themselves from psychological distress while on the job or to maintain professionalism when dealing with patients.
However, it’s by no means set in stone that experiences will have this effect. Other studies show that empathy levels in medical students either increase or remain unchanged.
Several mental health conditions, developmental disorders, and personality disorders might involve low empathy:
Borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD involves intense insecurity, extreme emotional swings, and an unstable self-image. People with BPD may have a normal level of cognitive empathy, but difficulty with emotional empathy.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Narcisists often exhibit a pattern of extreme self-centeredness and arrogance, as well as a high need for admiration. Some research shows that people with NPD may have low empathy, perhaps specifically emotional empathy. It’s also possible that they have a degree of empathy but little motivation to act on those feelings.
[Read: Personality Disorders]
Machiavellianism. This is a personality trait that involves a tendency to be manipulative and disregard morality. People with this trait may have a low drive to act on empathy.
Psychopathy. Psychopathy is a disorder characterized by callousness and antisocial behavior. Lack of emotional empathy, but not necessarily cognitive empathy, is a hallmark of this disorder.
Autism and empathy
There's a common myth that autistic individuals lack empathy. Some, but not all, autistic people may struggle with cognitive empathy. For example, an autistic person might have trouble immediately pinpointing why another person is upset. They might even have a hard time expressing a response that matches societal norms. This shouldn't be confused with a lack of caring.
Read: Adult Autism and Relationships.
Empathy isn't a fixed trait. Think of it as a muscle that can be developed with exercise. Developing your listening skills, paying attention to body language, and increasing emotional intelligence can heighten your ability to empathize with others. Embracing your own vulnerability and exploring new perspectives can also help.
Building empathy tip 1: Practice listening skills
You can’t put yourself in another person’s shoes if you’re unwilling to hear what they have to say. That’s why listening skills are a vital part of building empathy. You’ll need to go beyond just pretending to listen. Aim to listen so intently that you gain an understanding of the person’s situation, views, and emotions.
Identify and remove barriers to listening. If you’re stressed out, you’re going to have a harder time focusing on the other person. Consider addressing the stressor—whether it’s a looming deadline or a toothache—before continuing the conversation. Multitasking is another common barrier to active listening. Put away your phone and stop whatever else you’re doing so you can give the other person your undivided attention. This is especially important during disagreements or when broaching sensitive or complex subjects.
Don’t interrupt. When you cut people off, you not only interrupt their train of thought but you also risk misunderstanding the point they were trying to make. In addition, if you’re formulating your next sentence while the other person is still talking, you’re not completely listening.
Withhold judgment. If you know you disagree with someone, you might find yourself mentally discrediting their words as they speak. But it’s best to listen with an open mind. Don’t immediately criticize or assign blame while they’re talking. Make a real effort to understand where they’re coming from.
Let the other person know you’re listening. Non-verbal cues, such as maintaining eye contact, a head nod, and verbal cues, such as a quick “uh-huh,” let the other person know they have your attention. You’re essentially inviting them to continue. If you appear to be daydreaming or thinking about something else, the speaker might take that as a sign that you don’t care.
[Read: Effective Communication]
Provide feedback. If you think you might’ve misheard or misunderstood something, pose a few follow-up questions. The person can then clarify their point if necessary.
Tip 2: Learn to read body language
Listening isn’t just about receiving verbal messages. People also convey information about their emotional state through nonverbal body cues. The ability to read body language is useful in all sorts of social situations.
Perhaps you have a friend who frequently says, “I’m doing OK,” but you can tell by their sullen expression that something is wrong. Or maybe you can gauge a date’s interest in you based on their level of eye contact.
People often convey messages through:
- Facial expression. Frowns, grins, hesitant smiles, and other facial expressions can convey mood.
- Eye contact. A person’s eyes might be aimed at whatever they’re focused on. Wide eyes can convey excitement. Drooping lids might imply that the person is tired or calm.
- Voice. A person’s vocal tone can tell you if they’re joking or being serious. The speed at which they talk can convey confidence or nervousness.
- Posture. Stiff, tense shoulders might indicate apprehension. Relaxed shoulders and a slouching posture might be a sign that the person is at ease or bored.
- Gestures. Lack of hand gestures may indicate shyness or discomfort. Someone who’s feeling relaxed and friendly might use their hands more. The speed and intensity of the gestures can also convey aggression or excitement.
[Read: Nonverbal Communication and Body Language]
Reading body language can be tricky. Not everyone uses the exact same nonverbal cues. And certain cues can mean multiple things. For example, is a person tapping their finger on the table because they’re feeling impatient or because they’re enjoying the song playing in the background? Here’s what to consider when trying to understand someone’s body language:
Look for consistency. Nonverbal cues should match what the other person is saying. If your spouse says they’re anxious, their fidgeting or furrowed brow might reinforce this message. In situations where body language doesn’t match what’s being said, you might need to make more of an effort to understand how the other person is feeling.
Don’t read too much into individual cues. If you focus too much on any one cue, you’re likely to misunderstand the other person. For example, just because a person is looking away from you doesn’t mean they’re disinterested. They might simply be gathering their thoughts. When reading body language, look at multiple cues to gain a more complete understanding.
Being aware of your own body language
Remember that your nonverbal cues are also conveying messages to people around you. If you’re sitting with your arms crossed and looking away from the other person, they might take that as a sign that you don’t want to talk.
If you want to encourage the person to engage with you, use positive cues, such as a gentle smile and relaxed eye contact, to project warmth. Learning ways to manage stress can help you avoid unconscious negative cues, such as frowning and holding a rigid posture.
Tip 3: Embrace your vulnerability
Being empathetic requires you to make yourself vulnerable. When you hide behind an air of indifference, you make it harder for other people to trust or understand you. You also hold yourself back from feeling and understanding the full range of other people’s emotions. Here are some tips on opening up:
Reframe how you think of vulnerability. Maybe you’ve been taught that it’s a sign of weakness. Opening up to others—trusting them to listen and accept you and your flaws—requires courage.
Speak up. Tell your loved ones how you’re truly feeling. This requires you to reflect on your own emotional state as well as practice being open with others. Be prepared to accept and communicate intense emotions, including shame, jealousy, and grief. The more you talk about emotions, the more comfortable you’ll become. You’ll also notice that other people will be more willing to open up to you in return.
Say what you need. Make a habit of vocalizing your needs. Do you need someone to vent to? Or maybe you need physical help with something. Talking about your needs is healthier than suffering in silence. Not only does it make your life easier, but it also makes your loved ones feel trusted and needed.
Ease into it. If you have a hard time talking about your emotions or voicing your needs, just take things one step at a time. Maybe you can tell your friend about something that frustrated you about your workday. You can also tell them about parts of your day that made you feel excited and joyful. Or start by making a small request of your partner: “Can we go for a walk together this evening? Walking helps me feel less stressed.”
Don’t dwell too much on your reputation or perfection. If you’re overly focused on how other people perceive you, you might hesitate to be forthcoming. Maybe you feel you need to put up a facade to appear strong and unbothered. Try to let go of that idea and begin to embrace your imperfections. Being honest will draw you closer to the people who matter.
Tip 4: Improve emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence (sometimes called emotional quotient or EQ) is your ability to identify emotions and use them in ways that improve your life. For example, someone with high EQ knows how to relieve their own stress as well as deescalate heated arguments. EQ also enhances your ability to empathize with others, since it involves recognizing and understanding their emotions.
Emotional intelligence is often defined by four attributes: self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship management. Here are tips for building on each one:
Improve self-management by learning ways to cope with stress. Stress can make it difficult for you to be present, impairing your ability to assess emotions and social situations. So, learning a few stress-relieving strategies is an important step in enhancing your EQ. Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, to help you stay calm in the moment. Other practices, including exercise and meditation, are actions you can take each day to lower your overall stress.
Heighten self-awareness with mindfulness practices. Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment but withholding judgment. You can use this to connect with and accept whatever emotions you’re currently feeling. Are you upset? Are you anxious? Rather than label these emotions as “bad” or “negative,” foster curiosity about them. What caused them? What do they physically feel like? Are they affecting your interactions with others? In addition to making you more self-aware, this practice can improve your ability to process emotions and increase emotional well-being.
[Read: Emotional Intelligence Toolkit]
Increase social awareness by focusing on other people. Mindfulness can help you with this task as well. Aim to be present with whoever you’re interacting with. What’s their body language like? Is there a topic they keep circling back to? Connect this social awareness to your self-awareness. Is the person saying or doing anything that is stirring your emotions? Maybe their body language is putting you at ease. Or maybe they’re saying something that makes you anxious.
Use conflict resolution skills to manage relationships. Even when you’re interacting with your best friend or closest family member, disagreements are bound to arise. You might have differing opinions on politics. Or perhaps your plans for a joint vacation don’t match up. Maybe one of you accidentally offends the other. Knowing how to pick your battles, compromise, and practice forgiveness can help you navigate these inevitable conflicts.
Tip 5: Explore new perspectives
People are more likely to feel empathy toward people who are similar to them. You might feel more inclined to empathize with and help someone who looks like you, behaves like you, shares your goals, or experiences similar hardships. Unfortunately, this can lead to empathy biases when it comes to differences in factors like race, religion, or culture. Here are a few ways to counter that.
Actively expose yourself to new perspectives. If you’re an atheist, attend a religious ceremony. If you’re politically conservative, listen to podcasts that present a liberal perspective. If you’re used to city life, spend some time in rural communities. Look for common ground, but also acknowledge differences. You don’t necessarily have to agree with every perspective you come across. However, taking the time to simply listen with an open mind can help you see the humanity in people with different backgrounds or views.
Enjoy fiction. Even engaging with the perspectives of fictional characters can enhance your empathy. As you read a novel, you try to understand a character’s motives, goals, and emotional states. In other words, you’re exercising your ability to empathize. The same is true whenever you watch a character-driven television show or movie. Consider embracing novels, movies, and other works of art made by people from different cultural backgrounds. For example, if you’re white, read more books by Latino authors.
Be willing to question your assumptions. As you engage with people of different backgrounds, you'll likely find that many of your earlier notions of them were inaccurate. It's okay to admit to being wrong. Frame it as a learning experience. You can also begin to question your assumptions in daily situations. Perhaps your friend has a good reason for running late. Maybe that taxi driver was rude because he was under heavy stress. Practice using “what-ifs” to consider other perspectives.
It's true that building empathy is a way to expand your social circle and boost your happiness. But don’t overlook the benefits it has for the people you encounter as well. Empathy can have a ripple effect. As you take the time to truly listen to others, you’re providing them with some level of emotional comfort. And it’s possible that you’re making it easier for them to trust, comfort, and empathize with even more people.
Last updated or reviewed on February 5, 2024