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What Is Empathy? How To Practice It On A Daily Basis

Until I was introduced to the work of Brené Brown, empathy was just not in my normal vocabulary. It was not something I talked about regularly, and certainly wasn’t something I thought about. Once I was exposed to her, empathy became a regular part of my vocabulary. Here is a link to a great (short) video in which Brené Brown describes empathy. Take two minutes to watch to it.

In the video, she breaks down empathy into four components:

  1. Perspective taking and recognizing someone’s perspective as their truth
  2. Staying out of judgment
  3. Recognizing emotion in other people
  4. Communicating the emotion that you have recognized

Practicing empathy is important for so many reasons. I won’t get into all of them, but empathy will strengthen our personal and professional relationships and help us to learn from and work with people who are different from us. How can we practice empathy on a regular basis so that it becomes a regular part of how we operate? Based on the list above, here are a few things you can start doing now:

1. Perspective taking and recognizing someone’s perspective as their truth.

On a daily basis, we can work to take the perspective of others by listening. I know it sounds so basic, but I sometimes find myself not actively listening to what someone is saying, or waiting for them to stop talking so that I can either talk or go back to what I was doing.

It is quite challenging to take someone’s perspective if we aren’t actively listening. I would encourage you to try to slow down and really listen to what someone is saying.

2. Recognizing emotion in others.

In my opinion, it is hard to recognize emotions in others when we aren’t clear on the emotions we are feeling. In order to practice this part of empathy, we have to practice the art of recognizing our own emotions (even if we just sit with them and don’t do anything regarding those emotions). How can we do this? Try mindfulness.

Mindfulness can be described as being present in the moment, I love this definition from the Mindful Magazine,

mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

Meditation is a great way to start practicing mindfulness, but I often try to just slow down, sit and pay attention to what is going on in my head, but also what is going on around me. If this is new to you, I’d recommend looking at the Mindful Magazine site or try a guided meditation. There are a host of apps that you can try, but my favorite is the Simple Habit app.

This is something you can do daily. I try to meditate for a few minutes each day, and try to catch myself and slow down when I am feeling overwhelmed. When you start recognizing your own emotions, you can start recognizing them in others.

3. Communicating the emotion you’ve recognized to others.

On a regular basis, we can do this in a few ways, but it starts with getting to know people in your world. I know it sounds pretty basic, but when we have some sort of relationship with others, it is a bit easier to communicate what you see they are feeling.

If I have a relationship with someone, I can say something like “Hey, I feel like you are frustrated today, is everything okay?

Those questions are much harder to ask, and to expect an answer from when there is no relationship or common ground. I’d recommend starting at work, but start to ask questions and get to know the people you work with and what their interests and hobbies are. Fun fact: people normally enjoy talking about themselves, so this shouldn’t be particularly difficult ?.

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4. Staying out of judgment.

Oh, this one is hard, hence why I saved it for the end. I don’t know why, but it feels like our nature is to judge others. Regardless of the reason why we do it, it is hard to have empathy for others when we are judging them.

Mindfulness and relationship building can help with staying out of judgment. The practice of mindfulness helps to clear out our brains and lets us focus on what is happening in the moment. When I am clear and focused, I am more likely to challenge myself to stay out of judgment.

Relationship building is also huge here. Think about the people you care about and know pretty well. Think about the people that you interact with, but have no relationship with. It is so much easier to judge the people we don’t know. We can judge their choices and their actions, and often with little remorse for the act of judgment. That is much harder with the people we care about.

This will sound silly, but make sure you are getting adequate sleep and taking care of yourself. I am so much more likely to be snappy, judge people and care less about how people are feeling when I am exhausted and burning the candle at both ends.

Taking care of yourself allows you to have the energy to push yourself to stay out of judgment. This is a thing you have likely done for a while (it is natural and a go-to for all of us), so you will have to practice staying out of judgment. There are times when I find myself judging someone and have to literally say in my brain, “empathy.” That reminds me to try to take someone else’s perspective.

5. Finally, learn about people that are different from you.

It is a very interesting time to be alive. There is SO much divisiveness right now, and I don’t always see people being empathetic towards each other. It is easy to stay out of judgment when we are interacting with people that are similar to us. It is easier to understand why they are making the choices they are making, this is harder when we don’t know people as well. So challenge yourself to get to know people who are different from you. That’s when you can start to really know and care about them, and hence stay out of judgment.

I know these things are hard. Empathy certainly isn’t easy, but it is important. If we are going to work and interact with people who are different, empathy matters. To have true, deep, meaningful relationships, empathy matters. If we are ever going to change the word, empathy matters. It is a practice, but keep at it –I am in this with you!

[click_to_tweet tweet=” If we are ever going to change the word, empathy matters. ” quote=” If we are ever going to change the word, empathy matters. “]


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About the Author

Jessica Sharp

Jessica Sharp is passionate about empowering underserved and minority communities, diverse representation, and brain education. Jessica is the Founder and Chief Educator of Sharp Brain Consulting which works with public service agencies to provide education about the brain and its effect on organizational outcomes. Additionally, she is on the leadership team of Meals on Wheels in her town of Greenville, SC. She is completing a Masters of Public Affairs from the University of Missouri. Upon her completion, she will attend William James College to obtain a Doctorate of Psychology. Follow her on twitter at @sharpjes.