Most people think about empathy as a skill — something you can build with practice.
This is partly true, but there’s a deeper truth about empathy most of us miss:
Empathy often comes from doing less, not more.
As a psychologist, I work with many people who struggle in their relationships because they seem to lack empathy:
- Important conversations with their spouses frequently end up in fights
- They’re often critical or insensitive when their partner is struggling
- They have a hard time simply listening compassionately without interrupting
But here’s the thing…
Most people don’t really lack empathy: it just gets hijacked by bad habits.
If you want to be more empathetic in your most important relationships, learn to identify these five habits and eliminate them. When you do, you’ll find your natural capacity for empathy rising.
1. Passive Listening
Let’s be honest: most of us are not very active listeners.
When other people are talking, especially if it’s someone we know and they’re talking about a familiar topic, we tend to zone out:
- We start thinking about what we’re going to say in response to what they’re saying.
- We start thinking about what we want to be doing once this conversation is finally over.
- We start thinking about what the other person should have done to avoid being in this situation in the first place.
In other words, we’re not really listening.
In situations like this, we’re only passively listening. Because while the sound waves from their mouth may be registering in our ears, our attention is elsewhere.
Passive listening is when your attention is on you. Active listening is when your attention is on them.
The thing about passive listening is that other people feel it. They can tell that you’re not really present with them. That you’re looking at them but really lost in your own thoughts. And that doesn’t feel good.
Of course, it’s hard. I’m a therapist — a professional listener — and I often struggle with it!
But if you want to be more empathetic and a genuinely good listener, you have to at least be aware of this tendency. You have to know that it’s a weakness we all have and proactively defend against it.
When you see an important conversation approaching, remind yourself to try and be an active listener — to keep your attention focused on the other person and what they’re actually saying, not your thoughts about their thoughts.
It’s tough, but with practice you can unlearn the habit of passive listening. And as a result, be more truly present and empathetic for the most important people in your life.
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
― Ernest Hemingway
2. Prioritizing Problems Over People
Most of us are problem-solvers.
From nearly the time we can walk, we begin the long road of formal education where we’re taught to be efficient problem-solvers and rewarded accordingly.
Then, for most of the remainder of our lives, we spend 40+ hours per week in our jobs solving problems and getting even more rewarded for it.
But here’s the thing…
While problem-solving is useful in many areas of life, it often backfires in relationships:
- When your spouse comes home stressed after work, and you immediately start giving them advice on how to handle their boss better, things are unlikely to go well…
- When your kid gets scared of the dark and you start listing off 15 rational reasons why they don’t need to be afraid, things are unlikely to go well…
- When the person across from you is suffering emotionally, explaining why they don’t need to be depressed or anxious because things could be a lot worse… yeah, that’s not gonna go well…
The reason is simple:
When you prioritize problems over people, you make people feel like problems.
Eventually, people may want to take advantage of your brilliant insights and stellar problem-solving abilities. But in the moment — when they’re scared or mad or upset with themselves — they usually just want to be heard.
They want to feel like you’re there for them and that you understand. They want to feel like they’re not alone in their suffering.
But when you immediately jump into problem-solving mode, it’s invalidating. It makes people feel like they’re the problem or that it’s wrong for them to be “having problems.”
Your analysis might be technically “correct,” but that might not be what they need at that moment.
When people are struggling they want connection, not information.
If you want to be more empathetic in your relationships, put your problem-solving abilities on hold and focus on the person across from you and what they really need.
“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”
― Theodore Roosevelt
3. Avoiding Uncomfortable Silence
Most of us instinctively avoid uncomfortable moments of silence. In fact, we dislike silence in conversation so much that we gave it its own name — awkward silence.
But here’s the thing: Just because silence feels awkward doesn’t mean it’s bad.
In fact, highly empathetic people know that the opposite is usually true:
Silence is essential for meaningful communication.
Imagine the following situation:
Your spouse or partner gets home after a long day. Turns out, their workday was especially stressful. But on top of that, they got in a fight with their best friend on the phone as they were coming home.
You ask what’s wrong and they begin explaining their day and the fight. But every time they explain something, then pause to think more about it, you pepper them with more questions:
- Well, why didn’t you say…
- Why did you feel nervous, I would have been relieved…
- Why would he do that? Did you ask him about…
Imagine how that would feel: to be stressed out, upset, confused, and exhausted, but on top of that, your partner — the one you hope will be comforting — is cross-examining you like a witness at a trial?
Chances are, you would feel even more stressed out. It’s hard to think and express yourself when you’re upset. But it’s harder still when you feel pressured to always have answers and replies.
And worse, you would feel like your partner doesn’t really understand you and what you need right now.
When you don’t leave room for silence, you don’t leave room for understanding.
To be more empathetic and understanding, leave room for silence in your conversations.
It may feel uncomfortable to you, but it’s a true gift to someone who’s upset and struggling — the time and space to be with their struggles instead of feeling they need answers immediately.
“I did not know how to reach him, how to catch up with him… The land of tears is so mysterious.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
4. Trying to Fix Problems Instead of Validating Them
Like we talked about earlier, most of us are problem-solvers at heart, which means we’re fixers.
When something looks broken, our instinct is to dive in with our best tools and advice for repairing it.
The trouble is, not all problems need to be fixed.
Difficult emotions are not problems to be fixed. They’re experiences to be validated.
When someone you care about is suffering emotionally, it’s natural to want to alleviate that suffering and help them feel better.
But just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad:
- Just because your spouse is mad, doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you.
- Just because your child is scared, doesn’t mean they’re weak or soft.
- Just because your boss is stressed, doesn’t mean she doesn’t approve of you or your work.
Painful emotions are a natural — perfectly healthy and normal — response to difficult circumstances. But when we try and “fix” them by offering advice or giving reasons why it doesn’t make sense to feel that way, we invalidate the other person’s experience.
When you try to fix other people’s emotions, you make it seem like it isn’t valid for them to feel that way—which only makes them feel worse.
The solution is to stop trying to fix other people’s difficult emotions and learn to validate them instead.
Validating someone’s emotions simply means letting them know that you understand what they’re going through and that it’s okay for them to feel that way, no matter how painful.
If you want to be more empathetic, get comfortable with other people’s discomfort and let them know that, however hard, it’s okay for them to feel whatever they’re feeling.
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer
5. Ignoring You Own Emotions
The hallmark of highly empathetic people is that they’re exceptionally good at staying focused on the other person and their concerns without judgment.
But there’s one exception to this: It’s important to check in on your own emotions from time to time.
The number one reason conversations devolve into arguments or fights is defensiveness. When you feel like the other person is attacking you, you go into attack mode yourself, which creates a vicious cycle of criticisms, hurt feelings, and misunderstandings.
But the reason we get defensive is less obvious…
Defensiveness comes from not being aware of your own emotions.
It’s human nature to be insensitive sometimes. We all do it, no matter how hard we try not to. So it’s important to realize that just because someone says something hurtful doesn’t mean they intended to hurt us.
But to make this realization, you need to be acutely aware of how you’re feeling. You need to be able to sense some initial anger or irritability rise up, for example, validate it, assess where it’s coming from, and decide whether it’s something worth acting on.
Now, that’s a pretty tall order. It takes a lot of emotional intelligence and self-awareness to accomplish. But that’s the task ahead of us.
If you’re driven by emotions you don’t understand, you’ll never understand the emotions of someone else.
It’s often said that you can’t love someone else until you learn to love yourself. But less appreciated is this:
You can’t really understand another person without taking the time to understand yourself.
To be more empathetic, try and keep your focus on the other person. But don’t forget to check in with your own feelings from time to time too.
“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
― Carl Jung
All You Need to Know
If you want to be more empathetic, try flipping the problem…
Instead of trying to improve your empathy skills, strive to identify and eliminate the habits that are interfering with your natural empathy in the first place:
Stop listening passively.
Stop prioritizing problems over people.
Stop avoiding awkward silences.
Stop trying to fix other people’s problems.
Stop ignoring your own emotions.