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Developing the undervalued art of true empathy

Updated on August 12, 2013
True empathy means listening
True empathy means listening | Source

Developing empathy

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one...just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

Yes, I admit that the latest movie with Leonardo Di Caprio capturing Fitzgerald’s Gatsby to his hedonistic T drew me straight to this quote.

Yet, the words ring with truth and compassion. They also show us that empathy, the art of taking on the perceptions of others can be quite a difficult one to master. Master it we must, to fight negative emotions with a bit of positivity.

We can never fully appreciate the viewpoint of the other but there are things we can do to cultivate more understanding within and among us. Let me explain, with the help of a few haiku embedded in pictures of the Aster flower, a lasting symbol of empathy.

An empathetic person listens
An empathetic person listens | Source

Empathy defined

Wikipedia defines empathy is defined as the “capacity to recognize emotions that are experienced by another sentinent or fictional being.” Without the wordiness, what this simply means is to be able to feel what another person feels and walk in their shoes for a bit.

Empathy can be viewed in several ways. It can be seen as removing any emotional boundary between oneself and another. It represents the care and concern that we have for others or the experience of emotions that match another’s as much as possible, if not perfectly.

Though the concepts behind the words are related, empathy is NOT sympathy. Sympathy merely says, “I’m sorry for you,” with pity but perhaps no understanding or appreciation of the other party’s situation. Empathy takes things up a notch with the added element of being able to perceive, and thus comprehend, another party’s position.

Because of its susceptibility to broad definitions, it is hard to put a finger on the meaning of empathy. One thing we know is the need for its cultivation and that developing it makes us better people who can contribute little, but significant things in the course of daily living.

Empathy is reaching out and awareness of what is within the other person
Empathy is reaching out and awareness of what is within the other person | Source

Why we should develop empathy

Empathy can be a powerful perception and life-changing emotion. The things we see, or wish to see, are a result of the empathetic choices we make. We can choose to see helping an old lady across the road as being a nuisance or an opportunity to make a small, meaningful, individual difference. There are no prizes for concluding that the first contributes to negative cynicism while the second enables us to be positive, others-oriented individuals.

Before saying that this is sentimental, there are a few practical reasons why we should develop the skill of the walk in another’s shoes.

Empathy enables effective communication.

We can never do this fully, but when we are able to at least try to see things from another person’s viewpoint, in engenders better communication. Empathy greatly increases a person’s ability to appreciate needs which translates to better relationships both at home and in the workplace. The recognition of needs dissolves negative feelings of anger, hurt or dissatisfaction and allows all parties to willingly facilitate each other’s needs.

Empathy enables us to think out of the box.

Our perspectives of the world broaden with a little bit of empathy. With broader perceptions comes an increase in relationship skills and an added bonus - the ability to think creatively, with better ideas.

A classic example of this is the case of writing. We become better fiction writers and mould well- rounded, human characters when we can develop their spherical perspectives.

Empathy reduces stress.

A little empathy naturally begets other nurturing, positive emotions like compassion. It also develops our self-confidence. Think of the last time we heard someone say to us “Thanks, you really understood what I wanted to say.” Didn’t those words leave a sense of satisfaction and raise a little positive self-esteem?

Empathy helps us to become effective listeners.

Empathy is a critical component of effective listening. We are always put off when we try to tell others what we think or feel about issues, only to be regarded with little, or any, support, understanding or worse - back channel support because the person was shutting us out and not listening.

We may, unconsciously give others this treatment. If we wish to be better listeners, a little empathy makes a lot of difference.

Empathy enables us to respond to and resolve conflicts.

What an angry party actually feels is anxious for others to see things his way for a bit. And conflicts happen when both parties cannot, or refuse to, see things in other ways but their own.

This is when the voice of empathy steps in to remind conflicting parties to step back and see things from the other side for a change. When both are able to do this and say “I am finally able to understand why...” it can help to break tension.

Empathy is being able to inspire and make changes
Empathy is being able to inspire and make changes | Source

How can we develop true empathy?

True empathy can never fully be experienced unless you really have been in situations that mirror the other party’s. But this does not mean that we are not able to hone the skill of true listening and understanding.

Use your imagination.

If you feel annoyed or find it impossible to understand another person’s behavior or needs, take the time to really imagine what you would do if you were in the situation, especially regarding the pain or loss that is being experienced.

Often, that helps us to come to the conclusion that if you were wearing the other party’s clothes, you might wear them the same way as he does.

Be nurturing.

This enlarges our capacity to love others. The answer to the question “What about me?” is already prepared. Cultivating relationships by practicing a little empathy helps to break down defenses, both on your part and on the part of the person with whom you might have a wounded relationship.

From experience as a teacher, I realize that this is often the case with teens. They behave derisively or offensively sometimes out of the need to be understood. Showing them with a bit of firmness that you are prepared to see things their way makes them less defensive and creates inroads to better communication.

Put away assumptions and beliefs.

This can be a little difficult to accomplish. We often approach others with pre-conceived judgements of them, often because of our own experiences, some of which could have been harsh.

The other party might be behaving for reasons other than what we think drives them. So to remove opportunity for misunderstanding and to create more empathy, it is a must to try to put already instilled ideas away.

Try to identify with the other party.

Identify situations when you have been in a similar position. It can establish a little understanding of the other person’s needs.

Gain objective perspective.

This is important so that we do not become emotionally enmeshed with a situation. The irony is that we should detach in order to appreciate the person’s pain. Being too drawn into a situation may not allow you to understand fully his or her feelings because you are too emotionally involved. Separateness gives the advantage of objective perspective.

Practice healing, forgiveness and prayer.

Hurt is a truly effective pair of sunglasses. It darkens so much that will jump in shock or anger when a person annoys or upsets us. We can easily forget to take the other party’s needs into account.

Physician, heal thyself - before we can help others, we have to heal and remove the anger that can cloud our perspectives.

Empathy is using your imagination and introspecting.
Empathy is using your imagination and introspecting. | Source

Six habits of highly empathetic people

How do people who have high levels of understanding and thus lots of friends behave?What are some of the common traits they share? Knowing them might help us to develop our own interpersonal skills too.

They are curious.

Without knowing for the sake of pure socializing or cultivating insincere gossip fodder, highly empathetic people are genuinely curious about others. They really want to know about others or their situations so that they can better help. Empathetic people truly try to understand the world of the other person.

They find commonalities.

Empathetic people always find common ground with others. They always see outlets for conversation and opportunities to develop rapport with others.

They experience another’s life.

Few of us can really get up the gumption to do this. But truly empathetic people live life the way of others, at least for a time, in order to understand them.Animal Farm author George Orwell was a good example of this. After several years as a colonial officer in Burma, he wanted to gain a better understanding of the lives of the truly oppressed. So he lived in the streets of East London with those traditionally considered to be the dregs of society - beggars and vagabonds. Doing so enabled him to totally restructure his priorities and relationships.

Empathetic people truly listen.

Empathetic people are attuned to the feelings of others as they listen to them. They practice radical listening and are present, though detached, to whatever is going on within.

They are also willing to break their own defenses in order to form relationship bonds. Think of someone who has told you “I’ve had this happen to me before too.”

Empathetic people are inspiring.

Empathetic people inspire others to be empathetic too. They discourage prejudice, judgement and other forms of emotional negativity. They encourage others to see things from another view rather than judge.

They have good imaginations.

When they cannot fully be in the position to appreciate the feelings of others, empathetic people use their imagination to help them see how they would behave if wearing the other party’s shoes.

This holds true with people whose beliefs we do not share. While we may disagree with them, we can see what drives them to behave in certain ways. It is the key to social tolerance.

The Aster, a symbol of empathy

The enchanting beauty and lush texture of the aster creates magical feelings when it is viewed. Previously thought of as being able to ward off evil, the Aster’s name is derived from the Greek word ‘star.’ Today, it is widely regarded as a symbol of love, patience and of course, empathy.

There are five haiku on empathy written on photos of the aster that I have interspersed in various parts of the article. For more on the writing of haiku, do visit Daisy Mariposa's well-defined examples in her article, Poetry Forms. Do enjoy them.


Empathy is an underrated but necessary skill. To develop it, one must be willing to make the move to really BE in the other person’s shoes, as least figuratively.


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    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Lurana. I made the distinction because people tend to confuse empathy and sympathy. Thanks for sharing, I hope that it does make a difference!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      This is a lovely exploration of empathy. I like the distinction from sympathy and the discussion of attributes. Your suggestions for developing empathy are so helpful and can truly make a difference! Great job! ~Lurana

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks kindly, Daniel, correct, it's always beneficial to read from the pages of the way you've phrased that! Thanks for sharing!!

    • Dan Barfield profile image

      Dan Barfield 

      7 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      Awesome hub with a fabulous sentiment that I agree with whole heartedly! It's always beneficial to try reading from someone else's page. Greater understanding, closer connections and better communication come from this... voted up and all that jazz :)

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Lastheart.

    • Lastheart profile image

      Maria Magdalena Ruiz O'Farrill 

      7 years ago from Borikén the great land of the valiant and noble Lord

      midget38 I love the importance you gave to this concept, very good job!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Definitely. Each brings to the table individual experiences that color our approaches to being people, and it is not for others to judge the appropriateness of them.....unless they have been there or done that. a good balance of empathy keeps us in check! Thanks for sharing, Vinaya!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      True. It is a balance, and to be truly empathetic one has to be detached! Thanks for sharing, Janet!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Leslie.A school I used to teach in had its delinquent students visit prisons...but unless they lived the life, these youngsters would find it hard to understand consequences. Thanks for sharing!

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      7 years ago from Nepal


      though there is no five point guide on how to become a better person, nurturing certain types of emotions and habits surely helps.

      When we have empathy, we become compassionate. As long as we are compassionate, we will value justice, morality, ethics and such more.

      The points you have highlighted here are really important. I appreciate your tips and advice.

    • janetwrites profile image

      Janet Giessl 

      7 years ago from Georgia country

      A wonderful hub about empathy with beautiful haikus and the Aster as a symbol for empathy. Since childhood I have been told and experienced that I have too much empathy. When I was a child my sister had to stay at the hospital because of a metabolic disease. I really felt for her so deeply that I developed the same symptoms as my sister though I didn't have that disease. Now as an adult it is still the same. Whenever someone feels bad or gets sick,gets hurt etc. I feel the same. Like having too less empathy too much of it is also bad. You have too find a balance.

      Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Heya, Pinto2011! Empathy reduces stress because you have a better grasp of situations. Thanks for sharing!

    • ImKarn23 profile image

      Karen Silverman 

      7 years ago

      Empathy makes the world a better and safer place!

      Michelle - this is another incredible write, excellent topic - and amazing message!

      i feel that i understand the difference between empathy and sympathy, but - i have experienced much in life -including 2 near-death experiences..

      to me - empathy AND sympathy are the direct opposites of narcissism - which experts tell us are being bred in frightening numbers! Basically - what they're saying is - DUCK!

      if we don't teach consequences - there soon will be no empathy left in the world! I highly encourage taking our children to womens shelters, hospitals, homeless shelters - if only for a walk-thru...

      why not have our kids buy just ONE present for a needy child - whilst collecting more and more - and MORE?

      YOU, my friend - have illuminated this disease brilliantly - and i thank you for it!

      Keep shining the light - it's a heavy load..

      sharing (just to help a wee bit..)

    • pinto2011 profile image


      7 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Hi midge38! you have given this word a new meaning and a whole new dimension. F. Scott Fitzgerald's quote is really very touching and also I personally believe that empathy reduces stress to a great extent and you feel inner peace. So it is like meditation. Really you have worked very hard to present this subject articulately.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Linda! Kind of hard to detach, I know. Yet we must because we drain out if we don't! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Mary! When we feel a bit too much is when we need to detach a little. Understanding their needs and keeping a level head! Thanks for sharing, Mary!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Travmaj! I think most of us want to empathize as much as possible. Sometimes the words we say may not be consequential for us but might affect the other person without us even knowing or realizing it! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Kidscrafts. Yes, they are a symbol of empathy. It means a little bit of detachment! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      HI, Bill, thanks! True. For many things, it takes being there and doing that to honestly feel what it is like and what the true needs are. Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Cloud. Being empathetic is not easy and none of us will ever get to achieve it fully, but the main thing is to take these steps and try our best! Thanks for sharing!!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Listening and understanding are, indeed, Suzette. People sometimes get confused between empathizing and sympathizing.....when one empathizes, one does not pity but knows what its truly like to walk the walk. Thanks for sharing.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      We do have to push ourselves...because when we're in situations to need the empathy, we can only be given it if we have given enough of it ourselves. Thanks, Nell!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Janine! It is an important trait...because when we find that people do not empathise enough with us, we should also ask if we have done enough too. Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Maria! Daisy gave much valuable insight into the structure and form of many poems. Thanks for sharing and the wonderful compliments!

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 

      7 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Fabulous hub Michelle! At times I have an over abundance of empathy to the point of wishing I had none, yet I do and always will. I even feel for the ones who lack it. Oh well. Life goes on. Love the haikus!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      7 years ago from Florida

      Your Hub is beautifully presented with the haiku written on each Astor.

      I was taught from a child to try and put myself in another's shoes and then I would understand how that person felt.

      I do feel empathy for others; sometimes too much, I think.

      Voted UP and shared.

    • travmaj profile image


      7 years ago from australia

      This excellent hub certainly makes me think - do I empathise enough?

      Do I tune in and understand others points of view and walk in their shoes? I hope I do, I believe I do. But I'll be watching my reactions a little more carefully -

      Thank you once more for this splendid, positive piece of writing and the haiku is beautiful. Voting

    • kidscrafts profile image


      7 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      Great hub about empathy, Michelle! I love your montages of haikus on the pictures of Aster flowers. Great idea!

      I didn't know that those flowers were the symbol of empathy! I love those flowers!

      I have been told that I have too much empathy and because of it I am too sensitive. I prefer to have empathy than to have a heart as hard as a rock. If there was more empathy in this world, I definitly it would be a better world.

      Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful hub, Michelle! I love the way you see all the sides of each subject! Just beautiful!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      7 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great points made, Michelle, and I was glad to see you included experience in them. I have always believed that to be truly empathetic, one had to experience what others have experienced....not always possible but it sure helps. :)

    • CloudExplorer profile image

      Mike Pugh 

      7 years ago from New York City

      Awesome hub here and I also love the Haiku's in particular, I am an empath, so yup all this in your hub applies to my personality, and its hard at times to resist being this way, caring for all others feelings, emotions, and the likes.

      A rough way to be if anything for myself trying to help everyone I come in contact with, but its a good thing to help others in any way we can today for sure.

      Thanks for writing this awesome hub, and for sharing it with us all Midget. Thumbs up and outta here.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      Beautiful article on empathy. Your insights are so true. Listening and understanding are the keys to empathy. I like that you explain the difference between sympathy and empathy as they are two different concepts. When empathy is in short shrift now in our country and society your message warms the heart. Your haikus or haiga are just beautiful and I love the idea of the Aster as the symbol of empathy. This is such a sensational piece of writing. Well done and well written.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      7 years ago from England

      This was so interesting, and the Aster, flower of caring and empathy was perfect for your article. I do think we have to push ourselves sometimes to have empathy with people, we are so quick to say sorry to hear that, sympathy, but to feel is much more rewarding, wonderful hub, voted and shared, nell

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 

      7 years ago from New York, New York

      Truly loved how you wrote so much in detail about he topic of empathy. And very true that this is such an important trait to try to cultivate. Thanks for sharing why and how here. and loved the beautiful haiku that you wrote alongside this one, too. Have, of course, voted up and shared as always!!

    • marcoujor profile image

      Maria Jordan 

      7 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

      This is an awesome collage of the most beautiful photography and haiku...interspersed with powerful pearls of wisdom.

      Daisy has inspired you well with her Poetry Forms masterpiece.

      Voted UP and UABI. Hugs, Maria

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      On developing empathy in ourselves and haiku on empathy.


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