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9 tips to develop your empathy skills

One of the most powerful forces that hold us all together is empathy. Empathy allows us to understand and relate to each other, and it stops us from turning our backs on other people's suffering.

But have you ever felt unsure about how to respond when someone is upset or do you worry about saying or doing something wrong? While research has shown that empathy is innate, these skills can also be learned. So whether you're struggling with your empathy skills or just want to spread a bit more human kindness, it’s never a bad idea to find more ways to practice empathy in your day-to-day life.

Two women standing up and chatting while having a coffee

In this article, we’ll take a whistle-stop tour through the different types of empathy, how empathy can help both you and the people around you, and how you can cultivate your empathy skills.

What is empathy, though?

Empathy is something we have all heard. But what does it actually mean? Put simply, empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions and imagine what they might be thinking or feeling.

How's empathy different from sympathy?

Empathy often gets confused with sympathy, which is actually quite a different thing. One way of thinking about it is that sympathy says “I feel bad for you”, whereas empathy says “I feel with you”.

Sympathy can sometimes be construed as pity or feeling sorry for someone. This can make the recipient feel helpless or disconnected, despite any best intentions. Empathy, on the other hand, shows that you understand and share in the other person's feelings, and helps us to connect with each other.

The benefits of empathy

Empathy helps us to understand what other people might be thinking or feeling, and it helps us to connect with them in a meaningful way. Feeling connected to other people is vitally important for our wellbeing. It helps us to feel loved and valued, and it increases our feelings of happiness and self-worth.

Being more open to how others are feeling can also improve our:

  • Personal and professional relationships

  • Communication skills

  • Ability to manage conflict

  • Emotional intelligence

Perhaps most importantly, empathy makes other people feel less alone. It's a great moral compass and a reminder to always treat others kindly and respectfully.

The different types of empathy

Some researchers have broken down the concept of empathy into three different categories: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Let's take a look at each of them in turn.

Cognitive empathy

Cognitive empathy is the ability to think about and understand a situation from someone else’s perspective. Or in other words, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining what they must be thinking or feeling.

This type of empathy is about using your thoughts rather than your feelings. For example, at work, you might use cognitive empathy to imagine what a colleague might be thinking or feeling and to respond logically and appropriately.

Emotional empathy

Emotional empathy is the ability to share the emotions and feelings of another person, and it is what most people think of when they think about empathy.

This type of empathy is hard-wired into most human beings. For example, if someone you love is crying in distress, you feel that distress too. Or, if you see your child or family member get hurt, you react with them, perhaps wincing or screaming out. This type of empathy is what we most often share with the people we care about and it forms a strong bond between us.

Compassionate empathy

Compassionate empathy is a balance between cognitive and emotional empathy and has been billed by some researchers as the most helpful kind of empathy. Compassionate empathy is the ability to understand and share in someone else's feelings and emotions, but without taking them on as your own.

The best thing about this type of empathy is that it stops us from feeling overwhelmed and actually motivates us to do something to help.

Two women sitting and chatting at a wooden table

How to cultivate your empathy skills

Expressing empathy comes easily to some people but others can struggle. There can be many reasons for this including feeling burned out, overwhelmed, or just worried about saying or doing the wrong thing.

Luckily, empathy is a skill you can learn and build on. Here are a few tips that can help you cultivate your empathy skills.

1) Focus on listening

Try to focus on just listening to someone. You don’t have to have all the answers or say the “right” thing. Most of the time, people just want to feel heard. Simply making the time and space for someone to open up and feel accepted is enough. Listening also removes any pressure on us and allows us to really hear and understand what’s going on for the other person.

2) Ask open questions

Closed questions like “are you feeling sad?” are on