Empathy is the art of seeing the world as someone else sees it. When you have empathy, it means you can understand what a person is feeling in a given moment, and understand why other people’s actions made sense to them.
Empathy helps us to communicate our ideas in a way that makes sense to others, and it helps us understand others when they communicate with us. It is one of the foundational building blocks of great social interaction and, quite obviously, powerful stuff.
But how do you get empathy? How do you understand what someone else is feeling, if that isn’t happening automatically?
Well, to a certain extent we are all designed to naturally empathize with others. Our brains are wired to experience the emotions that someone else is feeling. That’s why we wince when someone hits their hand with a hammer, or why we’re more likely to laugh if someone else is laughing too. There’s an excellent book called Social Intelligence on this topic which explains all of the research behind this natural empathy.
Unfortunately, only a few people have excellent natural empathy. Our empathic wiring exists on a continuum. Some people have fantastic natural empathy, and can pick up how someone else is feeling just by looking at them. Some people have only a tiny amount of natural empathy, and won’t notice that you are angry until you start yelling. Most people lie somewhere in the middle, and understand how someone else is feeling only part of the time.
Fortunately, empathy is part talent and part training. Depending on your starting level of ability, getting better at empathy might require more or less work than someone else—but no matter what your starting point, you can teach yourself to be better at empathy.
And this section is here to teach you how.
Empathy contains three lessons.
If you want to understand the emotions of others, you have to learn to empathize with yourself. Understanding Yourself was written to help you understand and accept your emotions. Understanding and accepting your own feelings is essential for a healthy life, and it’s the foundation of empathizing with others.
Through practice and a commitment to thoughtfulness, anyone can learn to understand how others are thinking and feeling. Understanding Others is the blueprint that shows you how.
When you understand what someone else is thinking or feeling, it becomes easier to interact with them. But there’s a nonverbal aspect to interaction that deserves special attention. The knowledge you gain from empathy can help you to use appropriate nonverbal communication. Nonverbal Empathy explains how.