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Proven tips for empathy
Personal Development
  • Jan 14, 2021
  • 4 minutes

Proven tips for empathy

A few years ago, during a personal interview with a Zen master, I had an interesting experience. Seated face to face on our mats, I told him my answer to the koan I’d been working on. He was satisfied with my response, but he wasn’t happy with the way I delivered it. After several demonstrations and explanations, he got frustrated and I got annoyed, though I didn’t show it. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do, and I argued with him silently. As the man in front of me continued to talk, my internal dialogue suddenly shut off.

The complete mental silence that I sometimes experience during meditation and often just before sleep was upon me. I no longer felt like the teacher was scolding me or finding fault with me, nor was I bothered by his unexpected behavior or insistence upon something that seemed irrelevant to me. I became an observer. I suddenly realized that, though I didn’t understand him, he surely had a reason for explaining things as he did. I learned something, though it had nothing to do with the koan.

To practice empathy, we need to stop listening to ourselves. Even if we aren’t able to control our inner emotional reactions, we can ignore them as we listen, observe, and imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.

Here are 10 tips that can help you practice empathy in your own daily life.

1. Practice empathy with yourself.

If you want to know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, make sure you know what your own shoes look like. Be alert to your internal dialogue and emotional reactions. Meditation and quiet, reflective time help to develop this skill.

2. If a friend is upset with you, look at it from another perspective.

Consider your friend's personality, experiences, needs, and what he or she believes about you. The two of you can come to a better understanding.

3. If you’re upset with your friend, ask yourself why.

Ask yourself what you need from this friend and whether it’s reasonable to expect it. It could be a good time for a talk and, while you probably want your friend to listen to you, make a point to listen carefully to him as well and remember that he has his own reasons for his behavior.

4. If a colleague is difficult, there’s a reason that has nothing to do with you.

Make sure your behavior is kind, courteous, and professional even if you have to keep your opinion wrapped uptight and your lips sealed. At the very least, you’ll save yourself some stress.

5. If a cashier or clerk is difficult, there’s a story behind it.

Maybe he hasn’t had proper training, or his manager gave him a hard time just before you arrived. If he’s rude (and you’ve been polite), give something instead of expecting to receive. Offer a kind smile and wish him a good day or a good evening. You might not get any thanks (and you might have to take your business elsewhere), but chances are good you’ll make a difference in his life and you’ll feel better, besides.

6. Noisy neighbors have their stories, too.

If your neighbor is blasting his music (again), it can be hard to see things from his point of view, especially if you’re trying to get some work done in your home office. He might be trying to shake himself out of a blue mood or maybe he doesn’t understand how it bothers you. No matter the reasons, knowing that he has them — and that they have nothing to do with you — can help you stay calm as you try to tune it out or stay friendly if you ask him to lower the volume.

7. If someone is doing something that upsets you, remember that a person is a unique individual who acts from his or her own set of beliefs, needs, fears, and desires.

Understand that the world looks a certain way to a person, and the life history and learning is completely different from yours. A heart-to-heart talk might be just the thing — but make sure you listen without judgment or argument. Ask gentle questions, listen, and learn. Any of these tips can be tailored to different situations, but the main thing you need to know about empathy is this: you can’t practice empathy if you’re busy listening to yourself and reacting to your own thoughts and emotions. 

To practice empathy, you have to listen and look carefully, without judgment. Set aside your quick interpretations and knee-jerk judgments — and just listen. Just watch. Just focus on the other person instead of yourself, just for that moment or that very short period of time that you’re together.

But the lesson I needed at that particular moment was right in front of me, right at that moment. I needed to learn how to listen, how to watch, how to observe instead of listening to myself and my arguments, my defenses, my reactions and assuming the other person’s reactions are about me. I needed to see things from someone else’s point of view, to practice empathy.

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