Now more than ever, putting yourself in another person's shoes — really trying to see the world through their point of view — is critical. While empathy isn't a novel concept, it's especially key when so many human beings are suffering.
"Showing empathy is more than just words. It's actions," says Lisa MacLean, M.D., a psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health. "Your facial expression, tone of voice and body language — all of those things convey empathy — and they've been largely absent during the pandemic due to physical distancing and mask wearing."
Empathy helps us to communicate our ideas in a way that makes sense to others, and it helps us to understand when they communicate with us. It makes us better managers, employees, spouses and friends.
What Is Empathy?
The terms empathy, sympathy and compassion are often used interchangeably but they are not the same. Sympathy is feeling concern for someone else and a desire that they become happier. Empathy involves sharing the other person’s emotions. Compassion is an empathic understanding of a person’s feeling accompanied by altruism or a desire to act on that person’s behalf.
"Empathy seems to have deep roots in our brains and bodies and in our evolutionary history," Dr. MacLean says. "Empathy is a key ingredient of successful relationships because it helps us to understand the perspectives, needs and intentions of others. Empathy can fight inequality and it can be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change."
How do you know if you're an empath? Here are some clues:
- You're good at listening to what others have to say but you also allow yourself to be real and vulnerable.
- People often tell you about their problems and come to you for advice.
- You are good at picking up on how others are feeling.
- You go out of your way to help others in need, even when doing so cuts against your self-interest.
Even if you aren't a born empath, there are plenty of ways to cultivate empathy. Here are a few of Dr. MacLean's favorites:
- Practice mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness — really staying in the moment — can help you slow down, take stock of what’s happening and open yourself up to another person’s perspective.
- Be curious. Empathic people are curious about strangers. Be interested in and nonjudgmental about people.
- Get out of your own head. Empathy requires us to step into another person's shoes and out of our own minds. So instead of thinking about how an event or experience is affecting you, focus on what other people are navigating.
- Give grace. You never know what another person is going through. If someone jumps the line, cuts you off or seems gruff, try not to jump to conclusions.
- Listen. Listen with interest and investment. Called "active listening," this type of focused attention helps people feel seen and heard.
- Discover common ground. Think of a person who seems different from you and then list what you have in common. "We all have pain – knowing that can bring us closer," Dr. MacLean says.
- Try another person’s life. When reading the news or learning about other people's lives, try to imagine what it's like to navigate the world in their shoes — and discuss it with your children. Promote tolerance, grace and understanding.
- Practice altruism. Volunteer to help others in need and think of ways you can serve others instead of always being self-focused.
When we put empathy into practice, we show it in our facial expressions, posture, tone of voice and eye contact. We can lean in, look into people's eyes and use a kind, gentle voice. Empathic steps include:
- Acknowledging other people's pain. You could say things like, “I can see how that would be difficult."
- Sharing how you feel. Try saying, “I wish I could make it better. I don’t know what to say.”
- Thanking someone for opening up. You could say, “Thank you for trusting me with this.”
- Showing interest and support. Tell someone, “I am here to listen any time,” instead of presumptuous statements like, “I know just how you feel.”
Empathy Is Contagious
During this time of isolation, political unrest, loneliness and illness, it's more important than ever to prioritize helping your family, friends and neighbors. Be kind and listen to their life experiences. Things have been difficult, but the best way to heal is through helping each other.
"Empathy is contagious," Dr. MacLean says. "When group norms encourage empathy, people are more likely to be empathic."
Keep in mind that empathy can be painful. When we feel what others are feeling, it can hurt us, too. If you become emotionally overwhelmed, don't be afraid to step back and ask for help. "You have to take time to refuel and take care of you so you can show up for other people."
Dr. Lisa MacLean is a psychiatrist specializing in adult ADHD treatment at Henry Ford Behavioral Services in Detroit. She is also the director of physician wellness for Henry Ford Health, using her expertise to help doctors optimize wellness and find balance by teaching them healthy coping strategies so they can better serve their patients.