I recently reflected on empathy, with a goal to understand where I stood compared to others I consider significantly more empathetic than myself. While I reflected, I wondered what it would involve for me to increase my own level of empathy.
I had the belief, subconsciously, that empathy wasn’t a static, unchanging trait within myself; instead, I hypothesized that I could iterate upon it over time through practice. But how? How could I measure my own empathy? And how could I determine that empathy exercises make a measurable difference over time?
With full disclosure, I don’t have a definitive answer to either question; this is not that blog.
What I do have is my thoughts and findings on empathy, which formed the basis for how I approach answering those questions for myself. If you’re interested in this topic and want to learn more, I recommend a book I read after initially considering the malleability of empathy: The War for Kindness. This book was tremendously helpful in deepening my understanding and providing some insight into how empathy changes.
Trying to define empathy ended up taking me down a few rabbit holes. Ultimately, I learned from The War for Kindness that empathy isn’t a singular thing. Instead, it’s a general term used to describe how we respond to each other across a number of different experiences.
There are three ways we show empathy, and understanding these types of experiences was extremely helpful to me in thinking about how I can practically work to improve.
Experience sharing has traditionally been a default understanding of what empathy entails. It occurs when we feel as if we’re experiencing another’s emotions, positive or negative. Within an instant, our bodies mirror another’s, allowing us to feel their pain, discomfort, joy, silliness, sadness, etc. We’ve been doing that since infancy, so most people are very familiar with this definition of empathy. This allows us to understand one another in ways words really can’t.
Compassion, also known as “empathetic concern,” deals instead with our concern for another’s misfortune and a desire to improve their well-being. It’s a side of empathy that deals frequently with the concept of kindness.
Mentalizing is—as the name implies—a cognitive side to empathy. It occurs when we consider another’s perspective, allowing us to understand them better.
The true magic of empathy happens when we combine two or more of these ways.
With that understanding of empathy, I believe we can use it to begin identifying empathy within ourselves and in others. As we recognize empathy, we can break down which of the three are being used—or using the inverse, which of the three are missing from a situation.
By practicing that and being intentionally empathetic, I think it is possible for us to build up our empathetic muscles. This kind of training will require persistence—similar to traditional exercising—and I don’t expect it to be easy for everyone.
Psychology once suggested that every individual’s ability to empathize was a fixed setting where some were natural at expressing it, while others expressed more sociopathic tendencies. Today—and according to The War for Kindness—those once-truths do not seem to be as accurate. The science alternatively says that some individuals exhibit a stronger empathetic connection with others by default, but negative experiences could weaken that connection. Inversely, someone with less empathy could learn to exhibit more of it through examples, and an intrinsic motivation to become more empathetic. I personally find it comforting to know that I can improve that aspect of my own life!
In the spirit of being empathetic, I don’t want to disregard that, for some individuals, showing empathy may be significantly harder. The purpose of my writing this was to share some thoughts about practicing empathy meaningfully.
This section could have been a myriad of examples, but I think it is important first to mention some higher-level concepts to keep in mind.
Using Experience Sharing, Compassion, and Mentalizing as a guide, get started by recognizing either fictional or real-life situations where empathy is being used in at least one of the three ways. We could also break down how empathy should occur when it isn’t. I believe these kinds of exercises will build a repetition, allowing us to more naturally recognize empathy situations around us, as well as bring to mind how we can use empathy intentionally, even when it’s difficult initially.
For example, let’s say we have a colleague feeling frustrated due to being passed over for a promotion yet again. You can consider which of the three ways of showing empathy would be most helpful. It’s okay to Experience Share their frustration. There’s likely nothing we can say to improve the situation for them, but sharing in the experience—feeling their frustration—could be exactly what they need. We could show Compassion by bringing it up or recommending them to whoever decides on who gets a particular promotion. Frankly, we could also show Compassion by suggesting a job change, but this heavily depends on the specifics of the situation. Last, we could Mentalize by seeing this situation from their perspective and understanding—more than simply feeling—why they’re frustrated.
I don’t believe it’s a “hot take” to say trust and empathy are separate, but I believe it’s an important distinction to keep in mind. If someone has acted or is acting untrustworthily, we can empathize with their situation while being hesitant to trust them. Both trust and empathy are crucial in life and on a team, but they each apply differently depending on the circumstances. As an example of how they apply differently to the same situation: we could have a colleague that frequently says they’ll “get back to us”, but doesn’t. Experience tells us that, in this regard, they are unreliable, so we lose a little trust that they’ll contact us. Empathy, on the other hand, can be used to Mentalize their perspective. Perhaps they intend to get back, but note-taking isn’t something they are good at yet. There could be ways to use Compassion by offering to create a meeting to facilitate the “getting back to us.”
Empathy could help to avoid creating trust issues as well. For example, if we’re on a team and another member of the team is not meeting certain expectations, we could begin seeing that person as unfit for their role, or perhaps as someone unable to tackle harder tasks. I’ve been on teams like this, and I am ashamed to say I’ve been the one who became untrusting of another team member. Empathy didn’t cross my mind at the time. In hindsight, I didn’t Mentalize to see from their perspective. Experience Sharing didn’t occur, so I didn’t know what they were going through or what it felt like for them to be put in a position of being distrusted. And, Compassion wasn’t something I offered as willingly as I now would today. Personally, I know I don’t want distrust to be someone else’s early response toward me, and if I empathized, I believe we could have avoided that trust issue entirely.
As another disclaimer: I’m unsure what studies around apologizing exist in psychology, so I can only speak anecdotally about it. It’s entirely possible there is a deeper level understanding to how apologies and empathy relate.
It’s hard to say sorry, and we all screw up. We’re all going to act in an un-empathic manner at some point. Perhaps we didn’t get enough food or sleep. Maybe we’re dealing with some significant trauma or situation in our personal life that we aren’t comfortable disclosing yet. Whatever the reason is, every one of us will act selfishly, eventually.
Even if others believe it is justified, saying “I’m sorry” is, in my worldview, something we should be willing to say. Once we recognize our need to apologize, if we care about the relationship, we can help repair some damage done—even if minute—by apologizing. Personally, when someone else apologizes, it shows me their willingness to be vulnerable and ensures whatever bond we have between us isn’t weakened.
Empathy is impactful on the other end of apologies too. Recognizing that apologizing isn’t easy and takes a desire to be open gives us the ability to Mentalize, seeing that how we respond. If we, then, respond with Compassion, the bond we share is fostered. Alternatively, if we respond without empathy, it may be hard to repair that damage done to our bond.
None of this is easy and applying empathy in real-life situations is like using production as your playground for technical changes. Understand that you’ll fail, making it seem sometimes like you brought production down. But, what matters for growth is that you reflect and monitor your weak points. Improving might be slow, and could be painful; however, a slight improvement is still improvement.
Similar to how being surrounded by smart colleagues can help us grow in our field, practicing empathy can be slightly easier if we’re around empathetic people, as well. We can seek advice or mirror approaches or behaviors we see in others. In that situation, when you mess up, if there are others practicing empathy, then they will see you were doing your best!
Writing this out helped me to solidify some of my thoughts on this topic. By no means do I consider myself an expert or that I’ve “arrived” at the nirvana of empathy. But I strive to continue to gain a better understanding and improve how I practice empathy over time. My initial thoughts on this involved looking for a way to make empathy practical and improvable in a meaningful way. It may look slightly different for you, and that’s okay. Getting these thoughts out has forced me to consider that to truly practice empathy requires a peronalization rather than a generalized routine. “Exercising” our empathetic muscles will depend on situations and where we need to grow. With that said, my hope is that you now have the tools to begin considering what exercising empathy looks like for you!