How To Train Yourself To Be More Empathetic

Empathy is difficult. But taking the time to develop the skill can help you and your family in important ways.

by Matt Schneiderman
Smiling man sitting in meeting and listening

In theory, we all want to be more empathetic — to better understand where our kids, family members, friends, and colleagues are coming from. But in practice, empathy is hard. According to research done by C. Daryl Cameron, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Penn State University, people avoid empathy experiences because they see them as cognitively taxing and costly rather than rewarding. But that’s not to say it’s not worth it, especially for parents. “Empathy is part of being a good father,” Cameron says. “It can help you understand your kids better and make you more rational as a parent. It gives us perspective on trade-offs for short- and long-term development.”

Here’s how to train yourself to be more empathetic — and help your kids learn the crucial skill.

1. Acknowledge That It’s Hard

To repeat: empathy is hard. But why it’s hard — and why it’s hard for you — is complicated by context. For example, even though most of us find it relatively easy to empathize with someone we love or who shares our values, our empathic response tends to shut down in conflict situations.

“That’s where we each want to defend our behavior and emotions are running hot,” says Karina Schumann, Ph.D., Social Program Chair, Psychology, University of Pittsburgh, “It’s also challenging to empathize during interactions with dissimilar others — where we have a difficult time connecting to ‘their’ experience — and distressing situations where we want to avoid feeling others’ pain.”

2. Recognize Your Barriers

Stressful situations are challenging for practicing empathy. But personal boundaries may also be a source of resistance. Understanding your own biases and blockers can help you overcome them, or at least provide some areas to focus on.

“I encourage people to reflect on what their personal barriers to experiencing empathy are,” Schumann says. “What types of empathy-inducing situations do you tend to avoid? When do you experience feelings of burden at the thought of providing support to someone? When do you feel a lack of compassion even though the other person is asking for help or support?”

Recognizing your personal barriers helps you notice moments when you’re not being empathic, so you can choose whether to invest effort to empathize with the person or not. It might also be helpful to think about the specific barriers you face to feeling empathy across different types of situations or relationships, Schumann says. “What causes your empathy to suffer when interacting with your spouse? Your kids? Your colleagues? Having this understanding of yourself empowers you to make meaningful changes.”

3. Set Different Expectations

As you consider your barriers to empathy, you may discover fears — expectations of negative outcomes. These expectations can be powerful inhibitors. “If you think, If I empathize with this person, I’ll get burnt out, that it will be too costly, you’ll be less likely to engage in these experiences,” Cameron says. But if you go into a situation anticipating empathy to be rewarding and inspiring and that the outcome will be positive, it’ll be easier to empathize — and to help others. “We have a lot of latitude in terms of how we manage our feelings.”

4. Know The Different Types Of Empathy — And What Matters To You

Another way to change your relationship to empathy for the better is to understand the different ways to empathize, and which you think is important to cultivate.

There are essentially three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Cognitive empathy involves perspective taking — a relatively detached process of imagining what someone else is feeling. Emotional empathy, aka emotional resonance, is “catching feelings” such as happiness or sadness and is a fundamental skill we learn as children. Compassion is a bit deeper, involving feelings of concern and sympathy.

Consider which forms you want to strengthen, and the positive outcomes possible with them. “Some things make us want to feel empathy more,” Cameron says. “Like when a friend shares a positive experience and you feel joy, too. The main thing is to encourage yourself to put yourself in experiences where you can take on others’ feelings.”

5. ‘Opt In’ To Empathy

Ultimately, empathizing — practicing empathy — is a choice. So, choose to empathize. “Many empathy scholars have come to view empathy as more of a motivated process that we can exert some control over, rather than something that simply does or doesn't happen to us,” Schumann says. “If people understand that they can ‘opt in’ to empathy experiences by putting themselves in the position to connect with others, they will face fewer barriers to experiencing empathy.”

In a 2014 study, Schumann and colleagues Jamil Zaki and Carol Dweck demonstrated that people who believe they can grow their empathy were more likely to do this. “Essentially, those who believed empathy was something they could develop were more likely to invest effort to empathize in situations where empathy typically breaks down, such as a political disagreement, when interacting with a racial outgroup member, or when given the opportunity to spend time with cancer patients. They were willing to try to empathize in these situations, because they saw empathy as something they could learn through effort.”

6. Seek To Understand

There are ways to invest effort to increase your empathic response. Depending on the relationship type and the situation, these can include:

  • Using empathic listening, where you give the person your full attention, ask open-ended questions, and validate where possible.
  • Trying to learn something about this person or their point of view. “For example, you might actively ask them for their perspective or to share their feelings,” Schumann says. “Or you might educate yourself on cultural differences or other situational factors at play in the situation.”
  • Seeking out opportunities to spend time with the person.
  • Trying to find a point of connection or similarity with them.
  • Working on something collaborative with them.

“The goal is to learn and understand more about who they are, what they've been through, and what they are feeling,” Schumann says.

7. Generate Compassion For Self

You can increase your compassion for others by starting with yourself. “As in contemplative traditions, there are intervention programs building on meditation processes where you develop compassion for yourself, family, and kin, and then extend this to others — even enemies,” Cameron says. “Thinking about yourself or close relationships first is a bit easier, so start there and then extend it outwards.”

Cultivating compassion for yourself helps you develop compassion for others — and is also a hedge against emotional burnout. Recall the metaphor about being on a plane in an emergency and putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting someone with theirs.

“Remember to look out for yourself,” Schumann says. “Empathizing with others — though rewarding and beneficial in many ways — can drain emotional resources. It can sometimes even put people in situations where they are continuously providing support to those who take advantage of them. Keep an eye on whether the empathy you are experiencing is serving you well and healthy for you. If not, it might be important to pull back a little to protect your wellbeing.”