Empathy is a critical skill important for healthy social-emotional engagement and functioning. Empathy is the ability to join a person in their experience – it is recognizing the emotional experience of another and stepping into it with them. Empathizing with a person doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, nor does it mean you have to come up with a solution for their problem or situation – it just means you’re walking in step with them through the particular circumstance. Because of this, empathy resonates with people far more deeply than sympathy does, so recognizing the difference between the two is important.

Sympathy, by simply “feeling bad” for someone, typically means validating or agreeing with their experience or perception of a situation, or projecting your own feelings onto their situation or expression of their circumstances. Because of this, sympathy can prove both tricky and ineffective. If you don’t agree with a person’s perception, you may be tempted to make them see things from a different point of view – this will only lead to further argument and will likely leave the person feeling misunderstood and not listened to. Similarly, if you project your own feelings onto the situation, you may misread their emotional experience, and you may be tempted to jump right into problem-solving. This can again lead to disconnection between you and the other person if they aren’t yet ready to step past the situation.

In contrast, empathy means understanding what a person is feeling and acknowledging their point of reference. Because of this, empathy resonates far more deeply with people than merely sympathy does. By simply joining a person right where they’re at, you can effectively acknowledge the difficulty of their experience and the feelings they are having. By stepping into a person’s emotional experience while staying regulated and calm yourself, you can more quickly and effectively help them de-escalate, move forward, and activate the problem-solving muscle in their brain.

There are several ways to strengthen your capacity for empathy – try some of these strategies and see how your relationships with others begin to improve!

Use Reflection

Reflective listening is a helpful communication strategy that can become almost second nature once you get in the habit of using it consistently! The premise is simple – listen to, and process, what a person is saying, then repeat their idea back to them to make sure you’ve understood correctly. When we want to help someone with a problem, our tendency in conversation can be to jump straight to problem-solving. If a person is not yet ready to move into problem-solving mode, this can leave them feeling unheard and disconnected. An effective way to maintain pace with a person is to utilize reflective listening – you’ll see that when you provide reflection, a person naturally begins to move through the sequence of sharing their story and experience into problem-solving mode.

Practice Perspective Taking

Perspective-taking refers to perceiving or understanding a perspective other than your own – it’s a great next step after successfully using reflective listening skills! In terms of engagement with other people, perspective-taking means practicing seeing things from another person’s point of view. This skill is beneficial to use in any interactions with others but can prove difficult in conflict or disagreement. Our tendency at times during a conflict or argument is to only see things from our perspective and to try to prove our point. How many of us are guilty of already having an answer ready in a conflict when the other person is talking? Rather than listening to the other individual and recognizing their experience, we tend to maintain a “one-track” mind focused on our own goal or point to prove. Perspective-taking doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with another person; it just means recognizing their emotional experience and processing what they are communicating. Seeing things from another person’s point of view and recognizing their experience is one of the foundational aspects of demonstrating and strengthening our capacity for empathy.

Emotional Self-Regulation & Metacognition

Before you can empathize with another person, it is important that you are aware of your own experience. It’s very difficult to join another person in their experience if you yourself are emotionally worked up, dysregulated, or mentally distracted. Self-regulation refers to our capacity to maintain, or return to, a level of calm even when experiencing strong emotions. Co-regulation refers to our ability to help another person return to a state of calm after being distressed. This isn’t through talking and problem-solving, but by the other person “feeding off of” our calm – when they see and experience our calm state (slow breathing, regular heartrate), they can eventually join us there. When empathizing with another person, it’s important for us to be aware of not only our emotional state, but our mental state as well. Metacognition means recognizing and understanding your own thought processes. By being aware of your own internal state of feeling and thinking, you will be better equipped to help others.  In this way, maintaining a healthy level of self-awareness will allow you to more effectively interact and empathize with others.

Putting it all Together

Once you are aware of your emotional and mental state in any given situation, you will be more equipped to successfully join another person in their experience. You can then effectively reflect their experience back to them, identify and understand their perspective, and attribute emotion or feeling to what they are describing. 

“Okay, so you’re saying that when you asked your teacher for more time to submit your homework, it seemed like your teacher wasn’t even listening to you and didn’t care. That must have felt really frustrating.”

In this scenario, you aren’t saying you agree or disagree with the person’s statement or description of their experience, you are simply reflecting back to them what they’ve stated (So you’re saying when you asked . . . it seemed like your teacher wasn’t listening and didn’t care), recognizing their perspective, and you are identifying their emotional experience within the situation (that must have been frustrating).

That is the recipe for empathy! For emotional growth and the development of self-regulation, people need to experience empathy over and over again within the context of positive regard and structured boundaries. This provides the relational safety in which emotional regulation can grow. As you begin to interact with people in an empathic manner, you will see that they will feel heard, respected, and valued, and will naturally be ready to transition into problem-solving more quickly!

As you work to strengthen your capacity for empathy, keep these steps in mind: recognize your experience (self-awareness and emotional regulation), identify the person’s experience (reflective listening and perspective-taking), and join them in their experience (reflection plus emotion).

Diana Osipsov

Diana Osipsov

As founder and owner of Roots, Diana is passionate about helping patients find hope and healing by addressing issues related to trauma, anxiety, attachment disorders, emotional and behavioral dysregulation, and other psychological disorders. Diana specializes in pediatric care and early childhood development, and provides treatment services to children and their families; she also provides specialized trauma treatment to individuals of all ages with various trauma and attachment disorders.