Empathy as a Superpower: 9 Ways to Develop It

One of my Presuppositions for Positive Change is to “Respect another person’s model of the world.”  It is derived from the thinking that the most successful people on the planet have utilized in order to create the most transformation and empowerment possible.

Part of Dr. George A. Miller’s theory of communication, instructs us to suspend judgment about what someone is saying so we can first understand them without imbuing their message with our own personal interpretations.

The law states: “To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.”

The point is not to blindly accept what people say, but to do a better job of listening for understanding. “Imagining what it could be true of” is another way of saying to consider the consequences of the truth, but to also think about what must be true for the speaker’s “truth” to make sense.

The emotional component to both of these brilliant premises is—empathy.

Empathy is part of our humanity, allowing us to organize ourselves into community and create society; we all have the ability to empathize, but to what extent do we use it?

Empathy is the feeling and experience that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings, even if they are far removed from your own.

Empathy in business and communication has recently become a new buzzword; it is a key element in successful negotiation, marketing, product development, guest service, and of course relationships.

Empathy is not something you think about consciously, but since it is a feeling, it is something summoned from the unconscious mind.

I just thought I was weird, until I realized I was empathic.

For many years I struggled at parties and large gatherings; I would suddenly shut down emotionally.  I couldn’t concentrate unless it was absolutely silent and marveled at those who could listen to music while working.  Certain people exhausted me and made me feel drained.  I would walk into a room feeling great, then suddenly become sad or depressed and not know why.

Years later, I discovered that I had a high natural tendency to be empathic.  Suddenly, it all made sense.  I could finally relax and soon found simple strategies to cope with a variety of things that used to make me very uncomfortable. 

Best of all, I learned how to use it to understand how other people thought and felt, how they perceived the world.  My communication skills improved, I became more tolerant, I devised more useful solutions for others, the world had more depth, color, and texture to it.  It became a better adventure for me.

All of us have the ability to empathize, but some of us are what they call an empath. (Also known as clairsentient.) It took me a long, long time to recognize and deal with this. There are people who can teach you how to cope with this, but most empaths have to figure it out for themselves.

I am not what you’d call a true empath; I just have some annoyingly pronounced empathic tendencies. There are really very few full-on empaths around—only a tiny percentage of the population. 

What are MY empathic abilities?

The ability to feel what another feels is, whatever it is, an unconscious connection.  One’s ability for empathy exists on a spectrum, however, it is best thought of in this way: everyone is an empath by nature, it’s just that most people have not learned to access it.

That means it can be taught.  Through practice, you can develop and increase your natural ability to empathize with others, then use it to best serve your life, relationships, and career.

So, where are you on the scale of empathy?  Here is a useful test to find out.

Take this quiz to see your empathic abilities

Don’t be too disappointed if you’re not a full empath, why?  Here are some of the traits of an empathic personality. 

Traits of an empathic person.

    • Random mood swings even though you have no idea why. (You don’t realize that they are not your emotions; you are feeling the emotions of others.)
    • In crowds, your emotions run high and change often. You can even feel physically ill or have intense headaches.
    • People seek you out to confide in you.
    • People like being around you, but every time they are, they end up talking about their problems an issues.
    • You have a need to make everyone feel better/happier.
    • You somehow just “know” what people need to hear in order to feel better.
    • You have difficulty expressing your own emotions and much prefer to focus on someone else.
    • You often ignore people’s bad treatment of you–explaining it away because they need
    • You are a natural healer/helper and you always sacrifice for others.
    • You NEED to help people. (This is because their need and pain feels like your own.)
    • You are a magnet for the negative energy others.
    • You are a natural animal lover!
    • You are a nature lover. Anything to do with nature brings you a sense of great peace.
    • Those you love feel physically connected to you, even when miles apart.
    • You struggle with setting boundaries because the emotions of others impact you deeply.
    • Your body often feels icky, murky, dark and unpleasant, even if you have no medical condition to attribute those feelings to.

9 Ways to develop more empathy.

You don’t have to suffer the world of an empath in order to make positive use of empathy in your life and work. 

People who naturally and consistently exercise moderate empathy can easily forge positive connections with others. They are people who use empathy to engender trust and build bonds; they are catalysts that are able to create positive communities for the greater good.

These are the people who inspire others; people tend to refer to them as “a light”, “an inspiration”, “a gift”. They tend to bring people together and bring out the best in people, without really trying. But even if empathy does not come naturally to some of us, we can develop this capacity.

Here is how you can increase your ability to empathize with others.

    1. Listen – truly listen to people. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart. Pay attention to others’ body language, to their tone of voice, to the hidden emotions behind what they are saying to you, and to the context.
    2. Don’t interrupt people. Don’t dismiss their concerns offhand. Don’t rush to give advice. Don’t change the subject. Allow people their moment.
    3. Tune in to non-verbal communication. This is the way that people often communicate what they think or feel, even when their verbal communication says something quite different.
    4. Practice the “93 percent rule”. We know from a famous study by Professor Emeritus, Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, when communicating about feelings and attitudes, words – the things we say – account for only 7 percent of the total message that people receive. The other 93 percent of the message that we communicate when we speak is contained in our tone of voice and body language.
    5. Be fully present when you are with people. Don’t think of your response while listening to them. Don’t check your email, look at your phone or take phone calls. Put yourself in their shoes; listen as if it is you who is speaking.
    6. Smile at people.
    7. Encourage people, particularly the quiet ones, when they speak up. A simple thing like an attentive nod can let them know you understand them.
    8. Give genuine recognition and praise. Pay attention to what people are doing and catch them doing the right things. When you give praise, spend a little effort to make your genuine words memorable: “This was pure genius”; “I would have missed this if you hadn’t picked it up.”
    9. Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care, and have genuine curiosity about their lives. Ask them questions and so understand their challenges, their families, and their aspirations.

Though few have the ability, or affliction, of being a full empath, all of us can learn the positive aspects of empathy and use it to make a better society and a better world.

If we can all learn to step outside our own perceptions, beliefs, attachments and behaviors, and seep into those of another, even if we do not agree, and can see, if only for a moment, the world through their eyes and in a compassionate light, we can understand them—and through understanding comes harmony.

That’s a superpower worth having.

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