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Strengthening Your Empathy Skills Ability

When you have strong empathy skills, you're able to see things from other people's points of view as well as communicate your understanding of their viewpoints. Empathy isn't the same thing as sympathy or merely being nice. It's a vital interpersonal skill that enables you to forge positive bonds with others – which is essential for success in your personal and professional life.

For example, Tyler, a friend of yours in his 30s whose mother died some years ago, suddenly loses his father to heart disease. Even though your parents are still living, you find yourself imagining what it must be like to lose both your mother and father. You say to Tyler, "I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm sure it was really hard when your mom died. But losing your dad now must be even more painful. I'm guessing that the world must feel like a much lonelier place when both your parents are no longer living."

Your ability to understand Tyler's experience and communicate that understanding provides him a small measure of comfort during a difficult time. Most people deeply appreciate feeling understood by others, and friendships deepen when the partners can experience and express empathy with one another.

Here's another example, this one from the workplace: You're interviewing candidates for a new job in your department, and Marla, one of the interviewees, has struck you as particularly well suited to the role. You feel certain that she would make a valuable addition to your team. But upon extending her a job offer, you learn that Marla has received several offers from rival organizations. You realize that you'll have to work to persuade her to accept your offer.

You speak with her a few more times, specifically in order to learn more details about her. In particular, you ask her about her goals, interests, motivations, and values. You want to get a sense of how she views the work world and her place in it, so you can see things from her point of view. By empathizing with her, you know you can more readily create a compelling case for why she should take the job with your company.

For instance, you discover through your conversations with Marla that she greatly enjoys learning new things and forging close friendships with the people she works with. In your renewed effort to persuade her to accept your offer, you emphasize the developmental opportunities she will have with your team, as well as the unusually intense camaraderie that infuses your department. After weighing her various opportunities, Marla decides to go with your company.

There are many ways to strengthen your empathy skills. Here are just a few examples:

  • Read a book on the subject. Potential useful titles include Working with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Creating Harmonious Relationships: A Practical Guide to the Power of True Empathy by Andrew Lecompte, and Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman.

  • Take an online learning course on the nature and practice of empathy. Examples include the "Practicing Empathy" module offered through Your company may have purchased a site license for such e-learning programs. Or, you may be able to buy a CD containing modules of interest as well as participate in them online or download them from the developer. Some developers charge a fee for participation in the courses they offer; others offer modules for free.

  • Consult an expert. Find someone who you view as having particularly strong empathy skills. Ask this person how he or she has strengthened this ability.

  • Attend a workshop or course in understanding others' viewpoints, expressing that understanding, and other aspects of empathy. Your company may offer such learning opportunities or may be willing to reimburse your tuition if you take such a course through another organization. Local university extension programs, as well as continuing education programs, may offer such workshops and courses.

  • Use your imagination. When trying to see things from another person's standpoint, put together everything you know about the person and form a kind of inner picture of her. Based on that picture, envision what the world looks like through her eyes. Given what's going on in that person's life right now, how do you think she is feeling? What might this individual's dreams and challenges be? What most motivates this person, and what is she looking for most from the workplace? Ask yourself what your answers to these questions suggest about how you might best interact with this individual in a particular situation.

  • Learn how to listen. The more actively you listen to others – hearing what they're saying without judging them or preparing your response – the more you learn about their points of view. To practice active listening, try turning off your "internal judge" when someone else is speaking. That is, take in what he or she is saying, but without drawing conclusions and without rehearsing what you'll say when it's your turn to talk. Paraphrase what you're hearing ("So what you're saying is you're interested in taking on new challenges") to give the person the opportunity to correct any misunderstanding on your part.

  • Draw on your experiences with particular individuals. Ask yourself, "What do I know about this person from both past experience and intuition?" Based on your answers, determine how best to interact with him or her in each situation. For example, drawing on your knowledge of Susan, do you think she would enjoy joining a task force to feel part of the group? Given how she has responded to assignments involving analysis of information, would that new project you've like to delegate appeal to her?

Strengthening your empathy skills takes practice. But the results are well worth the effort. The recommendations listed above can help you hone this essential life skill.