Empathy is easily on the hardest traits to develop when it comes to communication. Which is why it’s no surprise people who embody this quality are incredibly magnetic, and we trust them to an unwavering degree. We recognize what it takes to develop this, and also understand many of us are not willing to pay the price.
While much is required, the payoff immediately surpasses break-even after our first interaction. Empathy isn’t just beneficial to the person in the presence of it. Empathy does just as much — if not more — for those who exhibit it.
Empathy is not feeling sorry for someone. It’s not endorsing erratic behavior. It’s not agreeing with a particular stance or point of view.
It’s merely to understand and share in the feelings of another. To quote the French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,
“Loving is not just looking at each other, it’s looking in the same direction.”
Here are my three steps to developing a level of empathy revered by many and appreciated by all:
1. Practice Patience
Perhaps the most challenging of steps is also the most critical. When dealing with human emotions, it’s hardly straight and to the point. It’s more like we test drive all the back roads before we jump on the highway. The tangents aren’t getting anyone anywhere, but we don’t necessarily need to interrupt them.
Language is very telling. Even something seemingly unrelated could actually be identified as a cause for a breakdown — such as a lack of confidence in one area of life bleeding into others. It is with this in mind, we relish in our stillness and allow others to share all they wish to share. The tendency to jump in and intervene will always be there, but our resistance is necessary to produce the best possible outcome.
Pro Tip: When high levels of emotion are present, people will say wild stuff. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Your listening, however, does. Allow people to release all they need to before offering any insights of your own.
Bonus Opportunity: Wait for an invitation before offering up your opinion. If you’re listening intently, you’ll receive it 99% of the time.
2. Suspend Your Judgments
One of the greatest fears of a human being is the fear of being judged. If we want to blame something for why people act out, we have to look in the mirror — our natural inclination to judgment is a huge proponent.
People find comfort in solitude and regular alone time as a break from this cyclical pattern. There’s no one to impress, no one to look good for, no one to protect themselves from. Those with superior empathy create environments where it’s safe for people to be authentic, typically by being quick to highlight their own imperfections.
Judgment has its place in the world, but it has no place in creating lasting and fulfilling relationships.
Pro Tip: As your friend, partner, or colleague is speaking, notice the judgments that show up — your brain will highlight plenty. Instead of assigning them onto the person as you normally would, redirect those judgments inward and ask yourself, “What do these judgments say about me as a person?” This inquiry alone is often enough to quiet the internal noise.
3. Get a grip on fundamental human needs
Behavior shows up in a vast array of flavors. Two seemingly contrasting actions can actually be serving the same need. The intent gets masked at times based on the behavior that’s chosen to carry out the communication.
Some people believe everything happens for a reason. Even if you don’t, you want to acknowledge every human behavior happens for a reason: to serve a particular need.
Here’s a quick rundown of the our primary needs:
a. Comfort — the need to be certain at a baseline level, comfortable enough to relax
b. Variety — the need for change, surprise, difference, newness
c. Meaning — the need for significance, to matter, to be recognized or acknowledged, to know there’s a reason for existence
d. Connection — the need for sharing, for love, to feel connected with another human, to not feel alone, to feel a part of something
e. Progress — the need for growth, for if you’re not growing you’ll feel like you’re dying
f. Contribution — the need to give to a cause greater than oneself, if for no other reason than to experience fulfillment from that source
You can equate many of seemingly inexplicable actions to these needs. And while we don’t have to agree or endorse all actions or ways of thinking, this list can certainly assist in our understanding of why people do what they do.
Moreover, you can once again redirect the mirror and see for yourself when you do something similar to meet some of the needs on this list, increasing the person's likelihood to feel aligned with you ten-fold.
Pro Tip: Given these are needs and not wants, leverage the transformative ways each need can be met by sharing with the person more constructive ways you met the same need they are looking to serve — probably unconsciously—within the context of their current situation.
People are as complex as they are simple. These three steps won’t make people drawn to you overnight but with deliberate practice, your skills will surely improve. The better you can empathize with people, the more they trust you. Trust opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities — ones you don’t want to miss out on.
Be patient with people. Hold back the inclination to judge. And be compassionate regarding the needs they are trying to meet at the present moment. They’re no different from your own.