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Learn 6 habits of empathetic people to connect deeper

January 2, 2023 - 15 min read

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What’s an empath?

Types of empathy

Why is empathy important?

6 habits of highly empathetic people

Cultivating self-compassion

Living a vibrant life requires empathy. 

Empathy allows us to build community, have more meaningful conversations, and feel less alone. We see ourselves in those around us and understand their experiences better. We also feel understood by others and safe to share. 

Research shows that human beings are becoming less empathetic. We prioritize our interests more often and find it hard to connect with others when most of our interactions are virtual. This individualism isn’t all bad. Our daily lives are ripe with opportunities and we’re learning to value self-love and personal goals.

But as our interactions become increasingly virtual and globally distributed, we can feel more disconnected from others. Practicing the habits of empathetic people can help us build community and connection to make our lives — and the world — a better place.

What’s an empath?

An empath is a person with a highly developed capacity to understand another person's perspective. They easily put themselves into other people’s shoes to experience what they feel, allowing them to connect with others on a deeper level than most. 

Early hypotheses about empathy theorized that it was an innate behavioral trait. But researchers throughout the 21st century across various fields, from neuroscientists to anthropologists, have proven that empathy is a learned behavior. Our brains process the intricate interplay between motor, sensory, and emotional areas to help us understand the way others experience things and act with compassion.

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Types of empathy

Psychologists have pinpointed three forms of empathy worth practicing: 

1. Affective empathy

Affective empathy (or emotional contagion) describes mirroring someone’s feelings. When we see a person experiencing pain or joy, our brains activate the same motor and sensory areas of the brain as the person we’re watching. This causes us to unconsciously mime their body language and facial expressions. 

This mimicry has positive and negative outcomes. It facilitates social bonding and provides important life lessons. When you’ve made someone feel bad, you experience the consequences of your decisions. But affective empathy can also cause you to mimic negative feelings such as distress, panic, or overwhelming anxiety, which can make you become avoidant or disconnected from the person you’re imitating.

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2. Cognitive empathy

This type is also called emotion recognition, colloquially understood as sympathy. Cognitive empathy allows you to perceive and identify another person's emotional state.

Imagine your loved one lost their father. You may not be able to understand the physical sensation of losing a parent, but you can identify their emotions as grief, disbelief, and loneliness. You can tap into experiences where you’ve felt these emotions and produce cognitive empathy. 

Cognitive empathy causes positive and negative outcomes. When we tap into our experiences, we can comfort others more effectively. It also plays an important social role, kicking in our desire to help when we witness injustice. And it’s a powerful driver of social change. Being able to relate to others through our experiences motivates us to fight for more equitable politics.

But people can also manipulate our cognitive empathy by taking advantage of our attempt to connect. Your partner or coworker might act mad about something to get you to empathize and take their side in an argument.

3. Compassionate empathy

This is the most active type of empathy. It’s similar to the other two, but instead of just feeling empathy, compassion motivates us to do something to improve someone’s situation. 

Say you notice a homeless person sleeping outside your office building and experience immense empathy. You feel cold when seeing them shiver, and you can relate to their lack of safety because of a childhood experience. But it’s compassion that compels you to give them money, buy them warm clothes, or help them find a safe homeless shelter.

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Why is empathy important?

Successful human relationships depend on empathy. When we can openly share experiences, needs, and desires, we build a bridge that promotes collaboration and collective well-being. We may dehumanize and objectify others if we don’t cultivate this emotional intelligence.

Here are three more reasons to flex your empath muscles:

1. Social connections

Empathy is crucial to building strong connections with other people. People are like good books — not everything is revealed at once. When we approach others from a place of empathy, we understand how they make decisions or respond to different situations and can learn how to treat them in a way that elicits positivity. All that work builds deeper connections.

2. Acceptance

Accepting and embracing others for who they allow us to learn from a more diverse set of people and increase our self-awareness faster. Life is a continuous learning process; everyone has something to teach us. But we’ll only retain the details if we can relate to their experiences.

3. Improved mental well-being

Empathy is all about taking a step back from ourselves and paying more attention to someone else. When a friend’s sharing a difficult experience, empathizing with them teaches us to regulate our more selfish emotions and shift the focus to them.

Getting out of our own heads can help reduce anxiety and make us feel like better friends, partners, and family members. This increases our self-worth and allows us to build community, which also improves mental health.

6 habits of highly empathetic people

Empathetic people tend to share the following habits. If you want to know if you’re an empath, see if you practice all six.

1. Active listening

We actively listen when we intentionally work to comprehend and retain information. Common active listening techniques include removing distractions, using direct eye contact, and mimicking body language. Better conversational engagement improves your ability to relate to the other person. If you’re a leader, listening is particularly important.

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Imagine a coworker you’re managing asks for advice about a workplace conflict, and you can tell they’re nervous and uncomfortable. Show empathy by putting away your cell phone, maintaining eye contact, and nodding to gestures you understand. Your demonstrable willingness to listen will make them feel more comfortable sharing.

2. Using their imagination

Most times you won’t share an identical experience with someone else. Empathy is all about taking broader experiences and emotions and relating them to others. For example, we’ve all felt sadness. You can relate to your roommate’s sadness over a breakup because you felt similarly when your parents divorced.

For situations where you can’t relate from experience, try to visualize how you’d react in their position. Don't derail the conversation by discussing this hypothetical during the conversation — use it as an internal exercise to develop a connection to the other person's experience.

3. Paying attention to non-verbal cues

Sometimes, what’s not said is most important. We often rely more on non-verbal cues than verbal ones to extract meaning from a situation. Practice intuiting meaning and mood from nonvocal cues like gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact (or the lack thereof). Pay attention to a person’s speed, volume, and tone when they speak.

Likewise, regulate your nonvocal cues. A soothing touch and calm voice will be more effective at cheering someone up than flailing arms and a booming tone.

4. Staying silent

Part of being a good conversationalist is knowing when to be quiet. Although sharing your own experiences can be helpful, always let others finish their thoughts and only share when prompted to respond. 

Only offer advice when explicitly requested. Receiving advice can make some people, like people-pleasers, feel confused and burdened because they want to follow your advice to make you happy. But it might go against what they really want to do. Advice is also often biased and projects our opinions, so dole it out sparingly and with their best interest in mind.

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5. Asking questions

Questions show you’re actively listening and sincerely caring about their situation. They can also clarify specifics to help you develop empathy. 

When asking questions, avoid inserting personal values or judgments — stick to the matter at heart. Here are some examples:

  • “What would have been the ideal solution?”
  • “How did it make you feel when they said that to you?”
  • “So you're saying [x] made you feel [y]?”

6. Cooling down before responding

An empathetic person values others’ feelings enough to let them explain themselves, even when it’s uncomfortable. 

Imagine a friend, family member, or colleague confronts you about something you did that upset them. It's important to listen and ask questions rather than react defensively. 

Take a beat before responding, letting them tell their story fully and allowing yourself to shake off any initial defensiveness. Ask for more time if necessary so you can address the situation empathetically and honestly.

Cultivating self-compassion

Learning how to be more empathetic will make those in your world feel cared for and listened to. But it will also help you develop compassion for yourself. Everyone’s experiences are valuable and worth tending to, including yours. 

Developing the habits of empathetic people will also help you notice these traits in others. If you surround yourself with fellow empaths, you’ll enjoy more meaningful relationships and an increased sense of community — and that’s invaluable.

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Published January 2, 2023

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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