How to be more empathetic
Empathy, or our ability to understand each other’s feelings and perspectives and show compassion toward them, is one of the building blocks of healthy relationships. When we are able to stand in another person’s shoes and see life from their point of view — a situation, a belief, a struggle — we are then better equipped to connect, without reactivity, on a human level.
It is, in a way, a sign of generosity; not in the material sense, but rather it’s a spirit of generosity. By leaning into this generosity and learning how to be more empathetic, we cultivate an attitude of openness, and we train our minds to be less judgmental. No wonder empathy can positively impact our relationships, with ourselves and others.
As Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk and the co-founder of Headspace, puts it: “Empathy does not require that we have been through the same thing as another person, simply that we meet them where they are now.”
Empathy may seem like an all-or-nothing emotion; in a way, that is true. Being able to recognize and relate to the feelings of others does not come in degrees. Like any skill, it is there, or not. But the good news is that empathy is a quality that can be nurtured and learned. Discovering how to become more empathetic is a life skill with benefits extending across all areas of life. Once you master how to have more empathy, you are better able to connect with and understand partners, loved ones, colleagues, and even strangers.
Existing in the world can come with a bit of sensory overload. A lot is going on out there, and it’s no wonder that we become preoccupied with our mind’s chatter. So often, our thoughts and emotions take over, leaving little space for those around us to feel seen or heard. And when we do migrate toward social interaction, we tend to stick to our birds of a feather.
All these behaviors can lead to an empathy deficit — where we’re only exposed to those similar to us — and being able to show compassion for people and perspectives that are different than ours becomes difficult, if not impossible. It can all seem a bit frustrating and disheartening. But asking yourself how you can be more empathetic and venturing into understanding those around you is worth the work. Here are some of the benefits:
When our brain goes to work figuring out how to be more empathetic, what it’s doing is getting the emotional center and cognitive center to collaborate and make sense of the situation in front of it. The brain’s emotional center, or limbic system, includes the amygdala and the hippocampus. This area stores feelings, experiences, and impressions. It can also perceive the feelings of others. The frontal lobe, which makes sense of behavior at the highest level, is where the empathizing magic happens. It tries to problem-solve and understand why someone may be feeling the way they are.
Empathy has multiple components: the cognitive, where you understand the person’s thoughts or feelings; the emotional, where you can share these feelings; and the compassionate, where you go beyond sharing concern and actively try to reduce someone’s pain.
If you’re in the process of learning how to be more empathetic in a relationship or everyday life, the main thing to do is give your interactions a makeover: Talk to new people from different backgrounds and walks of life. Actively listen to those around you. Allow yourself to be vulnerable in relationships. Focus on the interests and needs of others. Try not to make assumptions about those around you. And, of course, meditate.
Researchers from Emory University discovered that compassion meditation could improve our ability to empathize with those around us. It is thought that meditation for empathy can do so by activating the areas of the brain associated with compassion. When researchers from Mount Sinai Medical Center scanned patients’ brains during meditation, the brain’s empathy area began lighting up significantly. Meditation may also increase empathy by expanding self-awareness. In calming the nervous system, meditation helps you become more aware of your own emotions, making you more adept at empathizing with others’ emotions. And so as we learn through meditation to see our own thought-patterns, inner dialogue, and suffering, we move closer to the suffering of others. Empathy is essentially an understanding of the shared human condition — and this is the unfolding nature of our own kindness and compassion.
If you’d like to practice how to become more empathetic, Headspace offers a 10-day Kindness course (available only to logged-in subscribers) that incorporates skillful compassion and loving-kindness visualizations, helping to foster feelings of compassion and decrease judgments. Also available to logged-in subscribers is the 10-day Generosity course, which can help cultivate an attitude of general openness and encourage the mind to be less critical. In addition to meditation for empathy, Headspace offers courses that can help with sleep, anxiety, and even grief. Everyone’s meditation journey is different, so take a moment to browse through the library and find what works for you.
Basics: Session 1 - 5 min