Cultivating Empathy

If you’re looking to improve your relationships, empathy is an absolutely essential quality to cultivate:

“The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”.

That’s the Webster’s dictionary definition of empathy, probably one of the longest ones you’ll find describing a core human attribute. Yet despite the apparent complication of the definition, most of us know exactly what empathy is, and where, when, and with whom we feel it (or don’t).

Poor (or missing) empathy is one of the most significant contributors to relationship problems. Its causes are many, among which:

  1. A person’s lack of empathy may be rooted in their biology; people with autism are constitutionally incapable of experiencing another’s interior world (for reasons that are not fully understood, although it is clear that there are neurological abnormalities that contribute to the condition).
  2. A person may lack empathy because of an underlying personality dynamic. Classic narcissists, for example, are so fundamentally self-absorbed that they’ve never bothered to cultivate basic empathy.
  3. A person may intentionally withhold empathy in the belief that to exhibit it would encourage some undesired behavior (for example, a husband might exhibit uncaring behavior even though he cared deeply because he felt that to express sympathy would encourage a “poor me”/victim attitude in his wife). “Tiger Moms” might withhold empathy in a desire to spur greater effort from their children.
  4. Empathy may be withheld as “payback” for a partner’s previous transgression.

To a certain degree, empathy is “natural” (i.e. inborn). We now know of the existence of mirror neurons (discovered 15 years ago). Using brain scans. these cells have been shown to fire both when an action is performed (e.g. accidentally cutting yourself with a scissors) and when the action is observed in another. But the vast majority of empathy seems to be acquired through experience. While many people transform painful memories into empathy (“there but for the grace of God go I”), pain doesn’t automatically lead to empathy. In fact, it can lead to the opposite: some people manage their painful experiences by inflicting them on others (child abusers or bullies, for example). In the final analysis, building a healthy sense of empathy is a choice. If your goal is to strengthen your relationships, it’s a choice I urge you to make.

What are some ways to strengthen empathy? Here are a few suggestions:

Stop, look, and listen

Empathy is all about understanding the other person’s point-of-view and its context. Empathy doesn’t require that we agree with the experience our partner is having, but it does require that we understand its genesis. This understanding comes best from inquiry: “You seem really upset by my being late; what did that mean to you?” as opposed to “why are you making such a big deal about my being 10 minutes late?”; “When I look at another woman (or man) what goes through your mind?” as opposed to “you’re overreacting”.


You may have a partner who is uncommunicative, or who may not even be sure why something you (or someone else) did or said caused the reaction that it did. Inquiry in these cases isn’t going to provide much illumination of the issue; you may need to use your imagination to create possible scenarios and then get confirmation (or contradiction).


As you go about your day you will certainly encounter numerous examples of people thwarting your desires, or being annoying or difficult. Rather than going into a thought pattern of “What an a-hole that person is being,” try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and look for an explanation that might make sense from their point-of-view. The more frequently you put yourself in another person’s shoes, the easier it will become to slip them on.