5 Clever Ways to Improve Your Empathy and Interpersonal Relationships

Want to improve your empathy? Empathy is the ability to imaginatively step into someone else’s shoes, understanding their feelings and perspective. Read on to learn more!
5 Clever Ways to Improve Your Empathy and Interpersonal Relationships

Last update: 04 April, 2021

Want to improve your empathy? In the busy, fast-paced business world, it’s surprising to learn just how important empathy is. Not only does it boost your performance, but it also helps you effectively interact with your coworkers. In fact, low levels of empathy cause many problems in the workplace and at home.

If you don’t improve your empathy, you’ll feel distant from your colleagues. More importantly, if you’re not empathetic, it can lead to a failure to listen and work in harmony together. Luckily, there are excellent practices backed by science that you can implement into your life to drive your empathy.

Studies show that empathy is pivotal in improving your work relationships, leading to a fuller, happier level of life. Struggling to connect with your work peers? Are your working relationships not as strong as they could be? Implement the strategies below to boost your empathy levels.

Empathy is the ability to imaginatively step into someone else’s shoes while understanding their feelings and perspective. With the world’s current situation, we need as much empathy as we can get these days. From political polarization to racial tension and wars, we’re at rock bottom in terms of this crucial skill. So, what can we do about it? 

Well, first and foremost, consider increasing your empathy with friends, coworkers, and even strangers. In lieu of that, try some activities to help you facilitate and improve your empathy. For many people, it’s not the lack of empathy, it’s the lack of extending and using empathy. The following techniques will help you increase your capacity to empathize and the ability to express empathy.

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.”

-Alfred Adler-

What’s empathy and the theory of mind?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings and emotions. It’s essential to building good relationships, both at work and in your personal life. People who don’t exhibit empathy are viewed as cold and self-absorbed, and they often lead isolated lives. Sociopaths famously lack empathy

Conversely, someone who’s empathetic is perceived as warm and caring. The research shows that empathy is partly innate and partly learned. Everyone can strengthen it, however. Luckily, there are many ways to improve your empathy. Empathy has four elements:

  • A cognitive & thinking capacity to understand and adopt different perspectives.
  • A capacity to self-regulate behavior and emotions while keeping track of the origin of thoughts, emotions, and behavior.
  • An effective (emotional) capacity to respond and sensibly react to other’s emotions.
  • A social capacity to share emotions appropriately.

You may find these factors in a larger framework called the theory of mind. It details the ability to attribute attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, perspectives, and experiences to yourself. It also discusses the capacity to understand that others have different attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, perspectives, and experiences. Empathy is quite important, helping us understand the concept of pain and pain we perceive.

Empathic conversations accept other’s thoughts, acknowledging and validating others. They attempt to understand another point of view, building a person’s confidence listening and not just hearing, etc. Typical statements begin with “I can imagine what that’s like” and “I understand what you’re saying/feeling”. Any slang variants of these sentences work as well.

And, here’s the kicker. Empathy and expressed empathy are plastic. In other words, you can train and develop empathy with deliberate effort. Your brain will physically alter itself a little bit to accommodate empathic skills, even if you have brain damage.

1. Make curiosity a habit

Cultivate your sense of curiosity. What can you learn from a friend who’s “inexperienced” as a parent? What can you learn from a client you perceive as “narrow”? Curious people ask many questions, leading them to develop a stronger understanding of the people around them.

The switch from judgment to curiosity is a crucial step for anyone who wants to improve their empathy for others. Whether it’s with friends, coworkers, or complete strangers, we too often judge others based on our own assumptions. But we can teach ourselves to make a habit out of curiosity. 

The idea is to switch from thinking we know what’s going on to genuinely wondering what’s going on. The mental shift is subtle, but it can change our perspective in a big way. Consider this situation:

  • Story. You’re at the grocery store and see a toddler having a complete meltdown. The mother seems to have lost control and is standing there, not really doing or saying much at all.
  • Judgment.She’s a terrible mother. I mean, look at her kid acting like a hurricane, and she’s not doing anything! Some people shouldn’t have kids until they’re ready.”
  • Curiosity.That mom doesn’t seem to be doing anything while her kid has a meltdown. I wonder what’s going on in her mind? Maybe she’s overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, tired of the terrible twos, or unsure of what to do? Maybe she could use a hug and some reassurance that everything will be okay?”

The switch to curiosity is a switch from making statements to asking questions. It’ll really help improve your empathy. Want to ultimately boost your empathy? Try curiosity, replacing statements with questions.

2. Ask someone how they’re doing

Then, stop and truly listen to them. By listening, we mean with more than one of your senses. Pay attention to the person’s body language, facial expressions, and overall demeanor. The idea is to learn exactly what they’re saying. You can do this with your coworker, grocery store cashier, barista, or best friend. 

Sadly, we all have a tendency to breeze through some interactions on autopilot. Therefore, if you want to actively work on connecting with others, try this at least once per day. Ask a question more sincerely, so they’ll know that you actually want to know. More importantly, you’ll show them you aren’t necessarily looking for a quick, automatic, “I’m okay”. 

It’s a slight change of inflection in the question and people will know that you mean it. Sympathy means feeling compassion for others. On the other hand, empathy is the ability to understand and even feel the emotions of others. It’s deeper, more personal. Ask someone how they’re doing in a way that shows that you actually want a deeper, more personal answer. 

Can’t you tell a sincere “How are you?” By doing this, you’ll get to know people personally. Bear in mind that not all people click on a personal level. Yet, forming meaningful friendships with colleagues can make it a pleasure to go to work each day. 

Whether it’s having deep and personal conversations together or even something as simple as using a person’s name when speaking to them, this helps connect. Besides, connecting with people on a personal level will significantly improve how you work together. This brilliant secret will surely help you improve your empathy at work and at home.

3. Get lost in a great book

Empower yourself with knowledge. To best understand how you work, cultivate your knowledge, and be as smart and wise as you can be. Take the time in your life to learn new things, like reading a great book, especially a fiction story. Reading literary fiction, specifically, improves empathy. These findings come from two fascinating studies by social psychologist Emanuele Castano at The New School in New York City.

In the studies, he split up participants into reading groups according to the genre: popular fiction, literary fiction, and non-fiction. Then, he gave them a test to measure their ability to infer and understand other people’s emotions. The results were remarkable. When the participants read nothing, non-fiction, or popular fiction, there were unimpressive results. 

But reading literary fiction led to big increases in the reader’s ability to empathize. How could this be? Literary fiction books tend to look into the psychological complexities of characters. These interesting, complex characters with unique desires drove the story, while emotionally involving readers. 

Since characters’ inner lives aren’t discerned, this drives deeper exploration, which the book reveals in layers. Sounds like a good recipe for piquing people’s curiosity, right? It turns out that when it comes to improving empathy, it’s perfectly fine to practice on fictional characters. Imagine the possibilities here. 

Though you can’t hang out with a family of immigrants, or someone living in war-torn Iraq, they do inspire. They actively improve your empathy with them. Through literary fiction, we can practice empathy globally. This is helpful, and even essential, in a complex world.

As you can see, literary fiction influences the theory of mind, empathy, attitude, and personality. It’s quite wholesome as a hobby and a habit of reading figuratively puts you in someone else’s shoes. You get the opportunity to experience narratives in an intimate way.

4. Learn another language

Challenge yourself by learning another language. Undertake challenging experiences which push you outside your comfort zone. Learn a new skill, for example, such as a musical instrument, hobby, or foreign language. Develop a new professional competency. Learning another language will humble you and improve your empathy. 

When learning a foreign language, expose your kids to it as well. According to two University of Chicago studies, bilingual children show empathy and an enhanced ability to take other people’s perspectives into account. Even children who’ve merely been exposed to other languages are more empathetic.

In the first study, adults asked children aged four to six to move different size toy cars. There were three cars: small, medium, and large. When the adults said to the children, “Oh, I see a small car, can you get it for me?” The bilingual children acted accordingly, properly taking the adult’s perspective.

The second study was similar to the first one but for much younger kids. Researchers made it much simpler as it was for toddlers between 14 and 17 months. There were two yellow bananas on the table, and the babies could see both though the adults hid one. The bilingual toddlers were much more likely to hand the adult the banana, properly taking the adult’s perspective.

What does this have to do with learning another language? Katherine Kinzler, associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, created a theory. It speculates that children living in a household where they speak two languages give them a rich social experience. 

They had a chance to discover who’s speaking which language, where the languages are spoken, and who understands what. This translates into a greater ability to take others’ perspectives as they move through life. 

5. Manipulate words

Spot assumptions, unknowns, metaphors, and anecdotes in a sentence or someone else’s argument and manipulate them. Everything apart from facts is variable, and you can interpret it in more than one way. That’s when you can see someone else’s point of view. Practice doing this with a friend and try to populate a variety of interpretations by changing words. 

Here’s an example, “I was talking the other day and my friend was getting all riled-up for no reason”. You can break down this sentence into a few facts and a few unknowns. You can change the words in the example to highlight what the facts are and aren’t.

  • Facts. There were at least two people. One was talking. One appeared riled up to the other. The two people are friends. “No reason” is an assumption. “Talking” is variable.
  • Unknowns. One was riled up but no connection can be drawn. The reason is unknown. You can’t clearly establish the link between talking and riling up. I need information. 

Explore new possibilities by separating the known from the unknown. Perhaps the friend was riled up because of someone else. Perhaps the talking friend was projecting or misrepresenting the conversation.  

Here, talking refers to yelling without awareness and that change in phrasing explains the situation. This technique will help you improve your empathy and populate new perspectives, while thinking from different points of view. 

We hope you enjoyed these five tips for how to improve your empathy, making the world a compassionate place, one act at a time. With these clever techniques to increase the capacity to empathize, you’ll enjoy better interpersonal relationships.

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  • Carpena, A. (2003). Educación socioemocional en la etapa de primaria. Barcelona, España: Octaedro.
  • Goleman, D. (1996). Las raíces de la empatía. En D. Goleman (Ed.), Inteligencia emocional (pp. 162-183). Barcelona, España: Cairos.
  • Eisenberg, N. y Strayer, J. (1992). La empatía y su desarrollo. Bilbao, España: Desclee de Brouwer.