Empathy refers to a person’s ability to sense, understand, and feel the emotions of other people and to see and experience the world from their perspective. Of course, it’s not possible (at least for now) to fully embrace another person’s point of view and experiences, but our innate ability to empathize allows us to get a pretty good idea of how and what someone else might be feeling.
There are different forms of empathy, with the main two being cognitive and affective (emotional) empathy. The first one refers to the ability to understand the emotions and thoughts of others and the second describes the capacity to feel those emotions as if they were our own, but from the viewpoint of the other person.
While it may sometimes seem like empathy is not particularly useful, and might even be undesirable if we were to empathize with a person who is suffering, it actually serves a lot of important practical purposes, which is why people with lower levels of empathy might find themselves struggling in different aspects of life.
We live in an individualistic world, where it may seem that the winning strategy is to first look after ourselves and our own needs, and only then put effort into helping other people. In a way, this makes sense - a healthy dose of egoism is not a bad thing, because if you aren’t willing to take care of yourself, you shouldn’t expect that from others.
However, this causes a lot of people to see empathy as a null and unnecessary ability, which is a notion that couldn’t be further away from truth. While it may seem that being empathetic towards other people may actually prevent you from getting ahead in life, it’s actually quite the opposite. People are social creatures that thrive when together, and empathy is one of the main reasons for this. It allows us to better communicate, understand, and help one another, which, in turn, makes us highly effective at working towards our common goals and achieving things that no individual human could achieve on their own.
The thing is, though, that people tend to have different levels of empathy. While someone might easily understand how another person feels just by catching a quick glance of their facial expression, others may struggle to place themselves in the shoes of their peers and see the world from their perspective. This could lead to a lot of communication problems and even create conflicts between people, who are otherwise mean well to one another. Obviously, we all have our differences, and it can often be really hard to adopt the view point of another person even for a moment. However, being able to do that is the key to successful communication and is an essential skill in all aspects of life. Admittedly, if you are a person who naturally has low levels of empathy, it’s unrealistic to expect to fully change that. However, there are things you can do to become better at understanding others’ feelings and seeing the world through their eyes. Something that will be talked about further down this post.
Even if we ignore the moral side of empathy and how being empathetic would generally make us better people and members of society, having the capacity to empathize serves a lot of practical purposes and is generally required to lead a normal life. People who have innate difficulties understanding the emotions of others and at least partially feeling them, often find themselves ostracized and outcast. The inability to empathize with others places a big communication barrier between a given person and everyone else. This is because communication isn’t solely done through words, but also through body language, facial expressions, intonation, and more. A less empathetic person would have difficulty reading those more subtle forms of communication and thus be rendered unable to fully understand other people (cognitive empathy). Or if they do understand how someone else is feeling, they will find it difficult to relate to them because they won’t be able to experience the world from their perspective (affective empathy). In either case, the end result is ineffective communication that could lead to conflict, misunderstandings, and other unnecessary issues.
Furthermore, empathy can also be very important in a professional plan. Being able to sense what another person thinks and feels can help you more easily provide them with the exact thing that they want. Empathy is an essential skill in many professional fields, including trade, entertainment, marketing, education, services and more. Having the ability to relate to other people can make you a lot more effective at your job or allow you to meet the needs of your business clients.
As we said earlier in this post, a person’s innate ability to empathize cannot be fully changed. That said, if you are having difficulties relating to other people, there are a lot of practical methods that can help you become better at reading others’ emotions, understanding their thoughts, and experiencing those for yourself. Some of the things you can try are to meet people with vastly different backgrounds, visit places where you wouldn’t normally go, and focus on the way you communicate with others, trying to imagine yourself in their place.
Since our ability to empathize is linked to a lot of factors, such as our profession, cultural background, age, and gender, it can be difficult at first to adopt a more open-minded perspective and allow yourself to experience the world from a different point of view. What can help you on that journey is to read more in-depth materials on the topic and/or to enroll in a life skills course, with a focus on empathy and the practical steps on how to cultivate it.