Scientific ways to be more empathetic

Dr Anna McLaughlin

Most people think of empathy as the ability to feel what others are feeling. But empathy is so much more than that. Empathy allows us to connect with other people by understanding their perspectives, sharing their emotions, and feeling compassion for them.

Why do we need empathy?

Empathy is essential for our social relationships and well-being because it allows us to care for one another and live in harmony. Without empathy, we wouldn’t be able to form close relationships with our family members, friends, or co-workers. Scientists believe that empathy was crucial for human survival because it motivated our early ancestors to share food, care for the sick and protect each other from danger.

We are all born with an innate understanding of empathy. Still, if we forget to practise being empathetic, we can quickly lose touch with it. 


1) Practice empathy in everyday life

Fortunately, there are many ways to be more empathetic in our everyday lives. Scientists estimate that people have an opportunity to practice empathy around nine times a day, which means any situation that causes a positive or negative emotional response for the person involved. These opportunities can be as simple as asking someone how they are feeling, helping someone who's dropped something, or responding thoughtfully to a text message. It could also include being excited for a friend after they get a promotion or trying to understand why your colleague at work feels stressed today.  

So how do you know whether you're being empathetic in everyday life?

Empathy can include any or all of the following, so ask yourself whether you are:

● Connecting with them by sharing and accepting their emotions (which can be any positive or negative emotion).

● Thinking from their perspective and trying to understand their feelings by 'putting yourself in their shoes'.

● Feeling compassionate and wanting to help them somehow (motivated by their emotions and situation).


2) Listen with empathy

According to psychologists, empathetic listening is one of the most valuable communication skills you can develop. Actively listening to what people say and imagining how they feel improves your ability to think beyond your own perspective and consider other viewpoints. When people feel like they are truly being listened to it encourages honest and open communication, which is the foundation for supportive and caring relationships.

Listening with empathy goes beyond simply letting people speak without interrupting them. It's important not to challenge their views or start talking about your own opinions.  Try to focus on what they are saying and their emotions without letting your own thoughts and feelings creep in and distract you.


3) Communicate with empathy

Communicating with empathy involves showing a genuine interest and curiosity about someone's personal experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Asking people thoughtful questions shows that you want to understand them better, which builds their trust in you and makes them feel respected. Studies show that being more empathetic improves our ability to problem solve, promotes cooperation, and prevents misunderstandings.

You can practice communicating with empathy by asking open-ended questions such as:

"What do you think about…?"

"How did ... make you feel?"

"What made you want to…?"

Benefits of being more empathetic

Practicing empathy can lead to many benefits at home and at work by increasing awareness, understanding and compassion between people. As you become more empathetic, others will begin to listen more carefully and pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Over time, this will promote supportive and caring environments that increase everyone’s mental wellbeing.