How to practice empathy in relationships

Empathy is the ability to tune ourselves into other people’s sensations and emotions, and gain a sense of what is like to be them in that moment. It is vital to developing trust and rapport in relationships. Empathy allows us reach out to others and cultivate mutual understanding. It is usually learned early on between mother and child, as a form of non-verbal communication, which helps bonding and allows them to understand each other’s needs.

Sometimes empathy is described as the ability to step into someone else’s shoes and see the world from their point of view. Having a sense of their emotional needs and what drives them as a person. What makes them tick? Empathy is usually picked up in human interactions by listening to the other person’s tone of voice, their body posture, eye-contact, facial expressions and gestures. This is so we can understand how to respond to them appropriately: matching our emotions to theirs, mirroring their gestures and learning their behavioural responses. Most of us are hard-wired with empathy and compassion, so we can give and receive affection, love, care and attention. We need empathy to form trust and mutually satisfying relationships.

Without empathy we would be very unlikely to find a sense of belonging, share our emotions, or express ourselves without feeling vulnerable to judgement and shame.

How can I demonstrate empathy?

Practice being attentive – People watching is a good way to learn from other people’s interactions with you. Practise listening and observing, without judgement. Get a sense of a person's emotional states and find the common ground between you by attuning to your own emotions to theirs. Try to listen to the feedback others offer to you in a non-defensive manner that shows you’re willing to learn from them, despite your differences. Demonstrate that you are interested and attentive to what they have to say before responding and reflect back what you have heard. Only ask questions that show curiosity and do not offer your advice or try to fix others, as if you know best. Judging or criticising others is not empathy. Neither is sympathy – feeling sorry for others.

Pick up on their emotions – Try to gain a sense of what other people are feeling, as well as their physical sensations. By picking up on their facial expressions, listening to their tone of voice and body language, you will gain an understanding your own impact on their feelings. Sometimes you do not have to verbalise what you observe and hear. Just feeling empathy, silently in the presence of another person, being alongside them will have the effect of transferring empathy. However, be careful not to make assumptions or over-think what people are feeling or interpret the meaning of their behaviour as if you were in a better position to know what they are feeling.

Use your body and five senses as a tuning fork – Most people have five senses. We need to use them like a tuning fork, as a way of detecting the mood, inner states and emotions of others. We can use our bodily sensations as receptors, by attuning to stimuli from those people in our presence. We can make sense of facial expressions, gestures, eye-contact, nervous tics and tone of voice. We can also pick up on our unconscious, somatic sensations as we feel subtle vibrations from someone when they are in close proximity – breathing, heartbeat, body warmth and openness. Then allow yourself to develop a reflective state to see what aspects of a person resonates with your own.

Show them you have seen things from their point of view – Try to verbalise to others that you have taken their point of view into account. When talking with someone you care about let them know you have some understanding of how they see the world. Even if you disagree you respect their values, ethics and beliefs. Having differences of opinion can be constructive and help you see things from alternative perspectives. Not all differences are a threat. They can be complementary.  

Try to be more inclusive – Do not seek to impose your point of view or emotions on someone else and insist they hold the same values. Instead, try to show that you have taken your partners feelings and opinions into account. Reflect back the feelings, acknowledge and validate your partner, paraphrase their words or clarify what they have said. This way you show you are willing to tolerate and respect others, paying attention what they have to say before your agree or disagree. This allows for a much more inclusive and collaborative way of relating to each other. It also shows that you are not trying to attck someone or criticise them, simply because you disagree.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

I am an experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, Enduring Mind. I've been profoundly affected by my work with other people as a psychotherapist, anthropologist and writer. I'm captivated by the interior lives of others and the cultures they live in.… Read more

Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

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