Empathy and Connection

Why do some people have long-standing marriages, strong family connections, meaningful friendships, and thriving careers? Qualities such as diligence, dependability, flexibility, and commitment surely help people craft successful lives, but one often overlooked quality that contributes to the health of relationships—personal or professional—is empathy.

“When we exhibit empathy, we understand others from their point of view rather than ours,” says Kripalu presenter Karla McLaren, a researcher and award-winning author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill. “It’s the foundation for all human communication.”

Karla is quick to point out that many people have the misconception that empathy is about agreeing with people. She says it’s actually about understanding and responding to the needs of others, without tossing aside your own needs and opinions in the process.

If you’re looking to build your empathy muscles, here are some tips from Karla.

Develop a strong emotional awareness and a strong emotional vocabulary. Therapy is one way to become more aware of your emotions and to develop a more sophisticated means of describing them. But Karla says that engaging in relationships with people who are not only willing to talk about their feelings but also willing to be honest about them is another way to enhance your ability to empathize.

For those whose emotional vocabulary is thin, Karla suggests reading her free emotional vocabulary list, which highlights the nuances between different emotions. (When it comes to fear, for example, there’s a difference between feeling uneasy, startled, or panicked.)

Immerse yourself in art, as an observer or participant. “Art is the way we express ourselves,” Karla says. Whether it’s reading literature, watching films or live theater, listening to music, or appreciating painting and sculpture, the arts offer “a great way of seeing things through someone else’s eyes,” Karla says.

And when you sing, dance, act, paint, or draw yourself (“You don’t have to be any good at it,” Karla insists), you’re called upon to connect with universal emotions and how to express them.

Spend time with babies and animals. Increasing your nonverbal communication is another way to become more empathetic. And what easier way to do that than to spend time with those who lack language?

“Babies and animals enhance our empathy precisely because they can’t speak, so we’re forced to be empathetic in order to communicate with them,” Karla says.

Listen. This may be one of the most empathy-building skills of all. The next time you’re out to lunch with a friend, promise yourself that you’re going to give him or her the gift of your attention.

“It’s so important to learn how to listen—really listen, without just waiting to inject what you want to say next,” Karla says. When you listen closely to others, paying attention to their vocal tones, gestures, and eye movements, you can begin to understand more deeply how they feel.

If you’re the opposite of an empathy dummy—one of those hyper-empathic people who’s so sensitive to others’ feelings that you take them on as your own—then it’s essential to create a safe space that’s quiet, peaceful, and private, where you’re allowed to feel your own feelings without being bombarded by others’.

Either way, Karla says, developing a healthy ability to empathize will serve you well—because relationships are the foundation of life.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.

Karla McLaren, MEd, is a pioneering educator and researcher whose groundbreaking Six Essential Aspects of Empathy model makes healthy empathizing understandable and attainable.

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