Fourteen Ways to Develop Empathy

Fourteen Ways to Develop Empathy

Barbara A. Kerr, Ph.D. (


Empathy, one of the competencies of Emotional Intelligence, is defined as the ability to be aware of, to understand and to appreciate the feelings and thoughts of others. We expect family and friends to empathize as they listen to us. We pay therapists to skillfully listen with empathy.

How would you describe your own ability to empathize? And why might it matter?

People for whom empathy is a strength will generally interact well with others one-on-one, and they also work effectively in cooperative efforts. They will probably avoid hurting others’ feelings. The ability to empathize is essential for developing compassion.

People who are low in empathy often have difficulty understanding what others are feeling and thinking, and in giving due consideration to those feelings and thoughts. As a result, these people are often involved in misunderstandings and strained relationships. They may find it difficult to act with compassion.

Typically, if you are a generally stable person, your empathy has been increasing as you have grown older. If you reflect on your life, you will probably realize that your experiences, whether in “real life” or in reading about others, of new situations and of people who are different than you—in age, in gender, in skin color, in ability, in sexual orientation, in religious beliefs, in nationality—have increased your store of empathy.

Once you can put an individual human face on one of these “differences,” your empathy expands. And so does your ability to be compassionate.

But there is more you can actually choose to do, actions you can take to increase your empathy, compassion, and the ability to connect with anyone you interact with daily. Here is a brief list of possibilities:

• Make a habit of expressing your appreciation of others every day.
• Ask yourself, “What is this person feeling?” especially in those sticky situations.
• Be true to your promises to others.
• Become aware of the impact you have on others (keep a log).
• Identify and support a project that provides service to others who are in need.
• Learn to listen by reflecting thoughts and feelings back to others.
• Read widely to include perspectives of others who live or have lived lives very different from yours.
• Ask gentle questions: What can I do for you? What do you need?
• Become an observer of how people express their feelings—including body language and other non-verbal communication.
• Build a work culture that is emotionally safe and friendly.
• Ask for feedback about your behavior, decisions, and words (perhaps through a 360 degree feedback instrument).
• Attempt to see a tough situation from another’s perspective.
• Develop a sincere interest in other people by asking yourself what they have to teach you.
• Be willing to share your passions and interests with others.

If you are interested in learning more about Emotional Intelligence and how it relates to creating a more compassionate world, I invite you to enroll in Emotional Intelligence for a Compassionate World, an online, open access course that you can take at your convenience. Join us on the journey to creating a more compassionate world! Learn more here.

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