Empathy is hardwired, but few maximize it: Seven ways to develop empathy to its full potential

By Kimberly Blaker, June 2020 Issue.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. It’s similar to sympathy but with an important difference. To sympathize is to care about and understand the suffering experienced by another. When you sympathize with someone, you feel sorry for them. Sympathy gives you the ability to say the right thing to comfort another.

But empathy goes a step further. It’s the ability to actually experience or relive the feelings of another. When you empathize, rather than focusing on your own feelings about the other person’s situation, you’re able to focus on the emotions of that person. When you empathize, the other person can tell you’re really listening to them. Furthermore, empathy increases your ability and likelihood to help the person with whom you empathize.

According to neuroscientists, the vast majority of us are born with the brain wiring necessary to empathize. Psychopaths make up about 1% of the population and are the exception, according to a 2013 study by neuroscientists at the University of Chicago and the University of New Mexico. Still, among the 99% of us who are born with this capacity, most don›t fully develop or use it to its potential.

Benefits of empathy

Empathy is beneficial in several ways, according to Katherin Sears, Ph.D., in “Why Empathy Benefits Everyone.” It provides us the ability to act kindly toward others, to forgive family and friends, and to bond with others over their ups and downs. Without the ability to empathize, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to form and maintain friendships. In fact, we’d have difficulty getting along with others at school or work and in society.

Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, in an interview with CBS Good Morning, revealed another vital benefit of empathy. Without it, she says, “there is no way we could innovate.” This makes a lot of sense. Although some people would still have the desire to innovate for personal gain, innovation would be far more limited. People would lack the motivation to innovate to help others unless it offered a reward for themselves. The field of medicine is a perfect example. Many strides have been made in medicine over the decades, much of which has resulted from human empathy.

How to improve empathy

Experts believe, based on a large body of evidence, that empathy can be shaped. Not only can kids learn to empathize better, but so can adults. By practicing the following, you can foster yours or your child’s ability to empathize.

Active listening. This is a crucial component of empathy. Practice really listening to each other and trying to understand the other’s perspective. Active listening includes paying close attention to body language and facial expressions, so you can better understand the other person. It also requires refraining from interrupting. Parents’ modeling of active listening with their kids is particularly crucial to kids’ development of this skill.

Give back. Think about the experiences, feelings, and needs of those who are less fortunate. Consider various forms of adversity, such as kids with a terminal illness, the homeless, poor families, and those in nursing homes. If you have kids, ask them open-ended questions. Have them consider how it feels to be in those other people’s shoes. Then make a plan to help out in some way.

Commonalities. Despite the ability to empathize, studies have found people are often less empathetic toward those of other races or who are stereotyped in some way. Consider all the things you have in common with those who are different to improve your ability to empathize with them. Also, talk about these commonalities with your child. Then ask what your child has in common with someone of another ethnicity or race.

Lose yourself in fiction. It’s a great way to experience and understand another, even though the characters are fictitious. This will improve your ability to empathize in real-life situations. It’s a great way to teach kids empathy, too. Children’s books commonly have characters faced with adversity or dealing with challenging situations.

Practice reading faces. People often don’t share what they’re feeling or experiencing. Yet, it’s often written all over their faces. Pay attention to people’s expressions and try to understand what they’re feeling.

Look for opportunities to care. Every day there are people all around us in need. So, practice empathy regularly. If an elderly person is struggling to load heavy groceries into their car, quickly put yourself in their shoes. Then offer to help. This also sets an excellent example for kids. They can also practice looking for ways to care (while also adhering to safety rules with strangers).

Share in excitement and joy. Empathy isn’t only about understanding people’s downs. It’s also the ability to share in their happiness. Regardless of how busy you are, when someone is excited about something, take a moment to really share in their enthusiasm. This is a particularly good way to model empathy with kids, too. Likewise, share your own joy with your child.

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