How to be more empathetic: 5 research-backed exercises to try

How to be more empathetic: 5 research-backed exercises to try

In an increasingly polarized world, learning how to be more empathetic is a gift.

Is the world suffering from an empathy deficit? According to a 2011 meta-analysis led by social psychologist Sara Konrath, empathic concern and perspective-taking have declined since 1979, with a particularly steep drop between 2000 and 2009. 

With the recent increase in focus on racial injustice, economic inequality and political polarization, empathy deficit or not—the world can benefit from an improved capacity to understand different perspectives. The very fact that you want to learn how to be more empathetic should be cause for hope.

Below, we’ll go over science-backed ways to boost your empathy. But first, let’s clarify what empathy is.

What is empathy?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), empathy is “understanding a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own, or vicariously experiencing that person’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts.”

As the above definition implies, there are two types of empathy:

  • Affective empathy: This is the one we most often think of when we think of empathy. It is feeling what others are feeling. An example would be: Your friend tells you that she just lost her job, and she starts crying; you suddenly feel like crying too because it pains you to see your friend hurting.
  • Cognitive empathy: Cognitive empathy is using your intellect to try and understand what someone else is thinking or feeling. Even if you don’t feel any emotions at all, cognitive empathy allows you to imagine how someone else might feel and empathize with them in that way. 


An example of cognitive empathy: It’s the end of the day at work; you’re tired and ready to go home, but one of your coworker friends comes into your office to share good news with you—they just got promoted! Your stomach sinks because it’s the promotion you were hoping to get. You don’t feel happy for them because you’re tired from a long day’s work and sad that you didn’t get the job.

But, through effort, you could use cognitive empathy to think, “Wait a minute, this is my friend. Even though I’m sad I didn’t get the promotion, I care about this person, and I know they’ve been struggling financially and have been looking for ways to make more money. They probably really needed this promotion and its accompanying pay raise. I bet they’re so relieved and excited.” That thought process can give you the words to say to show that you empathize with your coworker’s celebratory feelings, even if you don’t feel positive emotions at that moment.

Not surprisingly, cognitive empathy requires more effort than affective empathy.

How to show empathy

Ask questions

Rather than taking a close-minded approach and assuming you know what someone means, empathy calls you to remain open and try to clarify to ensure you’ve understood. Asking questions is crucial to understanding someone else’s perspective. Practicing this is a key part of learning how to be more present and empathetic.

Mirror the other person’s body language.

Words matter, but they’re not the only way we communicate. A rich depth of communication lies in our body language, facial expressions and voice. For instance, if your friend shows up to lunch and says, “John and I just broke up,” your initial instinct might be to frown and say sorry because a breakup seems like bad news.

But let’s say that when your friend delivers this news, her tone of voice is cheerful; she’s sitting tall and smiling. Using your emotional intelligence, you can read her body language and tone of voice and tell this must be good news for her. You might, in turn, smile and say, “Wow, this sounds like big news. Tell me more!” This mirroring of body language and tone signals to your friend that you were practicing empathetic listening.

Share a personal experience

Sharing a time when you went through something similar can show the other person that you were listening to what they said and understand their pain in a particular way. It can help them feel less alone in their situation.

Proceed with caution on this one, though. Personally, when I share my sadness with someone or vent about a frustrating situation, I just want the other person to listen. I hate when someone tries to “one-up” me about the time they, too, got into an argument with a good friend or got rejected for an opportunity they really wanted.

In a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers from the University of Amsterdam found that having had a similar negative experience as someone else increases feelings of closeness and empathy, but it blinded the listener to what the other person was truly feeling. The authors write:

“Whereas ‘I know how you feel, I've been there too’ is a common way to express understanding of another's feelings, it may actually not be helpful to ‘have been there too’ in order to better understand how someone else feels.”

Though the research paper authors offer no remedy to this, I would say the best way to overcome this is to avoid making assumptions about how someone feels based on your personal experience, and instead, keep an open mind and ask them to describe how they feel.

Tell them you’re willing to listen

Empathy doesn’t mean you have to know what someone is going through. Even if you can’t relate to their pain, admitting so can be powerfully helpful. Saying something like, “I’m not going to pretend I know exactly how you feel, but I can imagine it’s excruciating. If you want to talk about it, I’d love to listen” shows a rare kind of empathy where you’re willing to be vulnerable with the other person. You’re telling them, “I don’t know what it’s like, but I am here, and I am listening. Tell me.”

Can you learn to be more empathetic?

Yes. The findings from a meta-analysis of 18 empathy training trials, published in the Journal of Counseling of Psychology, suggest that empathy can be taught.

Because empathy consists of a cognitive aspect, even when you can’t feel what others are feeling, you can use your brain to imagine and understand what it might be like.

What exercises increase empathy?

1. Read fiction

Empathy involves putting yourself in another’s shoes, and what better way to do that than reading a novel or short story? Fiction forces you to use your imagination to think, feel and act the way a character does—not unlike what you have to do in real life when empathizing with someone!

In fact, research suggests engaging in narratives and storytelling can boost our empathy. Keith Oatley, a novelist and professor at the University of Toronto, conducted a review of multiple studies that seem to support that. 

“Both fiction and everyday consciousness are based on simulations of the social world,” he writes in his review, which was published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. “Thus, reading a work of fiction can be thought of as taking in a piece of consciousness.”

In one study included in Oatley’s review, participants read an excerpt from Saffron Dreams, a book by Shaila Abdullah. In it, the protagonist, a Muslim woman, experiences racial slurs and insults from a group of teenagers. Participants who read the excerpt showed decreased racial bias in post-testing compared to the group that did not read the excerpt. 

2. Get to know people from other cultures

It's probably no surprise that meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds can improve your ability to see things from another perspective. But now, we have research to support that. 

Researchers from the University of Zurich conducted an experiment between people who were members of two different ethnic groups. They found that when an “in-group” member had positive experiences with an “out-group” member, their empathy, as measured via brain activation, increased for the out-group members. The researchers concluded that even a handful of positive experiences with people that you consider to be a member of an out-group is enough to increase your empathy for not only them but other members of their group as well.

You don’t even have to travel outside of your city to meet people from different cultures and backgrounds. Try attending an international travel meetup. Those typically have lots of people from all over the world, allowing you to “travel” without leaving your town. Ask them open-ended questions, and listen to what they have to say.

3. Get better at identifying the nuances in emotions.

Boosting your emotional intelligence, which involves properly identifying emotions in yourself and others, can help you empathize better. How? To even begin to understand, you must first label what you’re seeing. Is your friend frustrated or disappointed? Are they excited or stressed? Sometimes, it’s a fine line between two different emotions, and how you should respond to one emotion may be different from how you should respond to another.

One helpful way to get better at identifying emotions is to use an emotion wheel or something similar that helps you see the vast array of feelings. Last year, I downloaded the Mood Meter app, and it helped me to identify and log my varying emotions throughout the day. I got better at labeling what I was feeling, which helped me become better at describing what I was feeling to others. By being able to identify and describe emotions, not only do I get better at understanding what I’m feeling, but I also get better at finding out how others are feeling (a crucial part of empathy).

4. Play a game with a stranger

If you need a good reason to bust out the Xbox, keep reading. Research suggests that playing video games with strangers could help you become more empathetic. 

In a McGill University study, researchers found that the mere stress of being around a stranger blocks the ability to empathize. They measured this by asking participants to submerge their arm in ice water, which causes mild pain, in the presence of a friend and a stranger and then rating their pain levels in each situation. The researchers found that participants felt more pain when they did this exercise with a friend than with a stranger, suggesting that empathy (feeling another’s feelings) is stronger between friends.

Researchers then had participants play the video game Rock Band with strangers for 15 minutes before doing the test again. They found that after a participant played the video game with a stranger, their pain levels increased when their arms were submerged in ice water in the presence of this stranger. 

"It turns out that even a shared experience that is as superficial as playing a video game together can move people from the 'stranger zone' to the 'friend zone' and generate meaningful levels of empathy," said Jeffrey Mogil, McGill University professor and senior author of the study.

So if you’re trying to be more empathetic with someone you don’t know, try playing a game together to bond and see from each other’s point of view better.

5. Consider alternative explanations for someone’s behavior

When we feel that someone has wronged us, it’s normal to come up with a not-so-nice reason they did so. If a driver cuts us off in traffic, they must have done it to annoy us. If a friend forgets our birthday, they must not care about us. And so on and so forth.

But being empathetic means considering alternative explanations for those behaviors. Maybe the person who cut us off in traffic is new to the area and got confused driving on unfamiliar roads. Maybe the friend who forgot our birthday received bad news and had a crisis to deal with. This is perspective-taking, and doing this can help you boost your empathy.

Is empathy natural or learned?

Both! Studies show that even newborn babies display empathy, or at least the early traces of it. For instance, newborns cry more when they hear other newborns cry, and it doesn’t seem to be because they’re merely upset by noise. A 1976 study by Abraham Sagi and Martin L. Hoffman found that newborns cried significantly more at the sound of another newborn crying but not at the synthetic sound of a newborn crying at the same intensity, suggesting a sort of inborn empathy.

From infancy, how a baby is raised greatly influences their capacity for empathy. A study authored by professor Ruth Feldman and colleagues found that babies who received more physical contact from their mothers grew up to have a better ability to empathize.

But even if you didn’t have the nurturing upbringing that would prime you for empathy, all hope is not lost! If you want to learn how to be empathetic, you can learn it from people you look up to and by practicing exercises like the ones listed above.

How to be more empathetic: Put it into practice today

Empathy alone won’t solve the world’s problems, but it can be a strong motivator to try and resolve conflict. And if no solution can be found, empathy can at least be a source of connection, a way to relate with others—even when they seem vastly different from yourself.

If you want to learn how to be more empathetic in a relationship, the great news is that it’s a skill you can build. Choose one of the empathy-boosting tips in this article and practice it today. 

Learn how to be more empathetic with fast personal coaching—get started for free now.

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