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How to show empathy

Updated February 21, 2017

Conveying empathy and identifying with another person's emotions are important in any relationship, personal or professional. In romantic or friendly relationships, empathy allows a closer sharing of feelings and increases camaraderie and companionship. In professional relationships, empathy improves interactions with patrons and leads to a smoother work environment. It is always possible to pause and reflect on ways to improve empathy; indeed, one study has shown even physicians working with cancer patients miss opportunities to convey empathy. (Reference 1)

Clear the location of unrelated objects where you are speaking. This allows you to focus on the other individual(s). If this is not possible -- if you do not control the environment -- physically position yourself in such a way to show you are paying attention. (Reference 1)

Turn off cellphones or outside distractions. It is difficult to be empathetic while your focus is pulled in multiple directions.

Calm yourself as much as possible. Conveying empathy, particularly to someone who is under stress, can be difficult but becomes that much more difficult if you, too, are under stress. (Reference 2)

Direct your attention to the other person. Use eye contact to demonstrate you are listening.

Reflect upon what the other person says, and offer follow-up questions. (Reference 3) For example, if someone says a person close to them is sick you could ask, "What's wrong?" or, "Will they be OK?" These questions show you were listening, and that you find the issue important.

Identify the speaker's emotions. Empathy differs from sympathy in that it requires the listener to feel emotion along with the speaker. (Reference 3)

Ask about the speaker's emotional state: "Are you OK?" or "How are you feeling about that?"

Acknowledge and validate the speaker's emotions. Direct repetition, such as "I can understand why you're feeling that," can be a simple way to demonstrate your empathy. (Reference 3)

Offer support, if needed and if you are comfortable doing so.

Continue the conversation at a later date. This shows you remember what the speaker told you, and continue to find it important. For example, if the speaker indicated a family illness, follow up with questions about the family member's health.

Take cues to what the speaker wants and needs. Sometimes empathy simply requires listening. Sometimes a speaker may want more direct feedback. Either is OK, and the speaker's needs should be your guide.

Warning

Effective empathy requires feeling emotions along with a person. This can be difficult in cases of strong emotions; supporting someone undergoing intense life issues may in turn cause you to need support yourself.

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About the Author

Rebecca Kling is a Chicago-based performer and educator. She's a graduate of Northwestern University's Department of Performance Studies, a theater instructor around town and an independent performance artist. Her written work has been featured in Court Theater's "Review of Classic Theater," "Chicago IRL" issue #1. Kling is also syndicated through the BlogHer network.