How to Develop Your Empathetic Skills

Empathy is the art of thinking and feeling what those around you think and feel. In this article, we're going to explain some strategies for improving empathy.
How to Develop Your Empathetic Skills

Last update: 04 January, 2023

Imagine that you’re having a conversation with someone who’s important to you. Now, try to answer two questions. Firstly, are you capable of thinking how they’re thinking? Secondly, can you feel the emotions they’re experiencing as if they were your own? If the answer to these two questions isn’t a resounding yes, this article will probably be extremely useful to you. In fact, you may well need to develop your empathetical skills.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of empathy. Firstly, there’s cognitive empathy. This involves putting yourself in the other’s place. For example, answering questions such as: what are they thinking? What will they decide? Secondly, there’s emotional empathy. It refers to feeling the other’s emotions. For instance, it concerns experiencing the range of emotions that they’re feeling, like happiness, fear, uncertainty, etc.

“Empathy has two components: a cognitive one, closely related to the ability to abstract other people’s mental processes, and an emotional one: which is the reaction to another person’s emotional state.”

-Luis Moya Albiol-

Friends talking on the street
Empathy has a cognitive and an emotional component. They involve what the other person thinks and feels respectively.

Empathy

Throughout history, the term empathy has been hotly debated. In fact, it’s been defined in multiple ways. These range from feelings of ‘sorrow or pity for the misery of others’ (Smith, 1757), to ‘internal imitation that takes place through a projection of oneself onto another’ (Lipps, 1986). ) to ‘the ability to vicariously experience the emotional states of others’ (Moya-Albiol, 2010).

Clearly, empathy is a complex construct, but one with an undeniable biological basis. For instance, in certain brain regions, such as the premotor area, certain neurons play an important role in empathy. These are known as mirror neurons.

“Mirror neurons explain how we can access and understand the minds of others, and make intersubjectivity possible, thus facilitating social behavior.”

-Luis Moya Albiol-

Empathy and health

Empathy deficit plays an important role in many clinical conditions. Among them, are autism spectrum disorders and various personality disorders.

Autism spectrum disorders

In autism, the brain circuits responsible for empathy show low reactivity to tests such as the reading of stories in which the characteristics of a character’s intentions or mental states are judged. Indeed, it’s known that one of the most outstanding characteristics of autism spectrum disorders is a deficit in the theory of mind (ToM). This is the ability to represent our own minds and those of others.

Personality disorders

Regarding personality disorders, it’s worth mentioning schizoid personality disorder (cluster A), as well as narcissistic, antisocial, and borderline personality disorders (cluster B). Clusters are the classifications included in diagnostic manuals. They’re the characteristics that bring together certain personality disorders.

For example, the personality disorders included under the umbrella of cluster A are characterized by being weird and eccentric. On the other hand, those in cluster B tend to possess dramatic personalities.

How to develop your empathetic skills

Empathy intervention usually begins with training in social relations. Below, we explain some of the most common techniques to help you develop your empathetic skills.

1. Active listening

Active listening involves understanding what the other person tells you and conveying the message they’ve communicated to you in your own words. Your ability to reformulate their message implies a prior elaboration in you. For example:

  • Message: “I’m going through a really bad time because my partner has left me and I feel awful”.
  • Restatement: “I understand that you’re at a difficult moment in your life and that you’re feeling really empty due to your loss”.

There are two fundamental components to active listening. What the other person is transmitting and how they’re feeling. Therefore, it’s useful to ask yourself two questions: what are they trying to tell you and how are they feeling?

2. Don’t show prejudice

Prejudice is defined as a negative attitude toward an individual or social group. It has three components. These are the cognitive (beliefs), the affective (emotions), and the behavioral (behaviors emitted as a result).

Now that you know what prejudice is and what it implies in relation to the development of empathy, the goal is to distance yourself from yourself to delve into the other person. Make sure you avoid thinking, feeling, and acting in terms of how you would’ve acted. Instead, focus on how they’re acting and feeling.

female friends talking
Thinking of the other, free from our own judgments, helps us to empathize.

3. Healthy guidelines

There are certain signs that tell the other person you’re listening to them, understanding them, and validating their feelings. These include showing interest in what they’re telling you and focusing on what they’re expressing, and not solely by what they put into words.

As a matter of fact, you should try and capture the background of what they’re saying as well as the message itself as well as the fundamental emotions that are making them feel that way. They might be feeling happiness, fear, sadness, disappointment, etc. Give them time to tell you their story. Avoid rushing them.

Finally, if you want to put yourself in another’s place and empathize, you must reflect on what they might be thinking and feeling and experience their emotions as if they were your own.

These are just some of the techniques that can help you develop your empathetic skills. However, they’re far from being the only ones. In fact, if you think you need to improve your empathic capacity, you should seek specialized help.

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  • Fernández-Pinto, I., López-Pérez, B., & Márquez, M. (2008). Empatía: Medidas, teorías y aplicaciones en revisión. Anales de Psicología/Annals of Psychology, 24(2), 284-298.
  • Moya-Albiol, L., Herrero, N., & Bernal, M. C. (2010). Bases neuronales de la empatía. Rev Neurol, 50(2), 89-100.
  • Pascale, P. (2010). Nuevas formas de racismo: estado de la cuestión en la psicología social del prejuicio. Ciencias psicologicas, 4(1), 57-69.
  • Ruggieri, V. L. (2013). Empatía, cognición social y trastornos del espectro autista. Revista de neurología, 56(1), 13-21.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.