I have a unique vantage point as a counselor that many never get to see. I get to take a step back and “see the forest for the trees” whenever I’m dealing with a couple in crisis. The couple probably came to me because they feel like they are on different wavelengths and the frustration is building to the point of a melt-down. When I stand back, often I see multiple problems, but none is bigger than the inability to feel empathy in the relationship.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to come alongside someone, and not only see a person’s point of view, but also experience the other person’s pain. You go beyond feeling sorry for that person, since that would be sympathy. And go deeper, seeking to understand that person’s pain until you are able to feel the hurt, which in turn should move you to a comforting response.

What Does Empathy Do?

Empathy soothes. Empathy heals. Empathy fills the gap. In fact, I think empathy is like the “Super Glue” of distant and hurting relationships. It can pull you tightly to your partner and keep you together in all kinds of trouble.

How Do You Develop Empathy?

There are seven ways, among many, to develop empathy. I hand picked these, because I feel they are among the best strategies. And to help you remember them, the methods are an acrostic for – INSIGHT.

Imagine – Use your imagination in several ways to your advantage.

  1. One way is to imagine yourself in that person’s situation. Really take time to think through how you would feel if you were in that person’s shoes—especially regarding the pain they are experiencing.
  2. Another way is to imagine the person as a child. If you have photos of the person as a child, use them to help you visualize. Often when we consider the person in the vulnerable stage of childhood, our defenses tend to lower and lessen.

Nurture the Relationship

Make a point to regularly practice caring behaviors with this person. When you act lovingly toward someone, it actually increases your feelings of love, as well as, your ability to empathize with that person.

Set Aside Your Beliefs, Concerns and Personal Agenda

When you are dealing directly with this person, you have to go into the conversation empty handed—with no personal expectations or goal of fixing them. Very often couples come at each other with baggage from their past or presuppositions that muddy the communication waters. Instead, you must be willing and eager to have your mind and perspective changed. Your only agenda is listening to your partner’s feelings and trying to understand your partner’s point of view.

Identify with Their Experiences

When the other person begins to share, focus on the feelings and situations that you’ve experienced in the past that are similar. This will deepen your emotional insight into the other person’s plight.

Gain Personal Perspective

This method involves working on your personal identity. In other words, you need to learn who you are separate from the other person. If you do not have a clear sense of identity, then you can become “enmeshed” (emotionally entangled and dependent upon the other person) and will tend to take things too personally. When you take things personally, you cannot separate yourself enough to feel the other person’s pain. Begin to practice emotionally detaching—not allowing the other person’s negative behavior to determine your mood or choices. In time, you will gain a greater sense of identity and separateness that will offer you the advantage of perspective.

Heal Past Hurts

If you don’t heal past hurts, you will be like a walking wound and anyone who brushes up against you will send shock waves of anger and pain through your body. This anger keeps you from seeing the other person’s feelings. Instead, you become self-absorbed with your own pain. If you find ways to resolve your hurts, you can turn your focus off of yourself and clearly see your partner’s pain.

Turn to God

As humans, our ability to empathize is extremely limited without God’s help. We may try to empathize based on sheer will-power, but when the heat is on or the situation endures, our empathy quickly evaporates. That’s why it is essential to turn to God, because He gives us the mercy, compassion and grace that are necessary to develop empathy. It’s as if our empathy cup never runs dry, when God is the One pouring His abundant compassion into our hearts.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NIV)

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Comments on: "7 Ways to Develop Empathy and Gain Insight" (31)

  1. Thank you so much for your sweet comment! Always nice to “meet” another SBU alum. I enjoyed checking out your blog!

  2. Whenever I think about couples going through this, I shudder. Perhaps this is empathy–just thinking of trying to fix such a mess after it’s gotten so big that you can’t see, as you say, “the forest for the trees” anymore. I pray we never reach this point, b/c it scares me even more to know that no matter how much *I* do, it wouldn’t matter if my husband didn’t reciprocate. Marriage requires such trust.

  3. It sounds as if you are facing a situation where your husband is not or has not reciprocated. If that’s the case, you will need to draw upon God and good friends for support because it is extremely tough to be in that place. But the only way you can inspire him to empathize with you, is if you empathize with him regardless of whether he is returning the favor. Thanks for weighing in. Believe me, I know that issues like empathy are much more easily discussed than lived out!

  4. Anonymous said:

    About the last point…. How should I turn to God if I’m agnostic?

  5. If you’re an agnostic, you wouldn’t. Your support network would be smaller, but you could still look to your friends for support and perspective.

  6. By the way, I don’t write on this blog anymore, and therefore, am not “Writeontheknows” but “Messy Marriage” instead.

  7. Anonymous said:

    I liked all the tips except for the last one – Turn to God – especially when you just seem to assume the following: “As humans, our ability to empathize is extremely limited without God’s help.” and you would even state that turning to God is “necessary”, “essential”. How limited your view of people and the world in general must be when you assume the only ones capable of empathy would be Christians.

  8. I’m not saying the “only ones” who can empathize are Christians, but I am saying it is extremely difficult to empathize “completely” without the supernatural help of God. That’s just how I see it and have experienced it. With that said, I hope we can agree to disagree. :)

  9. Anonymous said:

    Then, maybe, it would be an idea to include something along the lines of “in my experience”. And we don’t need to disagree on anything when you say believing in God helped YOU and that it was essential for YOU, and that you would – based on your own experience – recommend it to everyone. I don’t see any reason to disagree there.

    The way it’s written down now though, is you saying it is essential. You would even argue that “as humans” (and by that, including every single person on the face of the earth) our ability to empathize is extremely limited without God’s help. You state it as fact. Now, sure, maybe this is true in your experience, but that does not mean it is THE truth.

    Honestly, I don’t condemn anyone who follows any religion, God, spiritual leader or whatever it is that works for them. But what I don’t understand, is that people – and atheists fall into this category as well – would often mistake their own experiences and truths as being THE truths for anyone, anywhere. I think that is a very limited view of people and “the world”. Not acknowledging that multiple truths might exist really closes down your mind.

    Now, this wouldn’t really damage anyone outside the ones with the closed minds as long as they didn’t have much influence and people wouldn’t be natural followers. But what happens now is that someone with a lot of influence (this doesn’t have to be someone like the Pope, but could also “just” be a counsellor) AND a closed mind, will tell the ones who are desperately looking for help that they aren’t following the “right” path and must adjust, even if it goes against all their own beliefs. I can see how it seems to the “closed minded” person as though they are “helping out”, seeing as they are sharing from their own experience and it helped themselves, but just because it helped you out does not mean it will help someone else.

    In fact, being told to throw overboard all current beliefs by someone you regard “an expert”, for example a relationship counsellor, this “expert” even telling you it will be necessary, essential, that there is no other way might be very, very harmful to the person trying to follow the expert’s advice. What if they fail, or they feel they cannot do what is regarded as “essential” or “necessary”? They might come to the conclusion that they will NEVER succeed at what they are trying, seeing as they assume the expert knows all and is telling them to do something that they cannot do. This might cause intense frustration or even depression with all possible consequences.

    I’m not saying it’s wrong to believe in God. I’m not even saying that sharing your personal experience – being that God helped you a big amount – is a wrong thing. But, if you know that some people who turn to you for advice might be in quite a desperate state, and regard you as “the expert”, I would really urge you to think twice about stating certain ways of “dealing with things” as THE RIGHT or even THE ONLY way. It might cause more harm than it lessens it.

  10. I agree with previous Anonymous that others might not find ‘turn to God’ a convincing option in learning empathy.
    However, Beth’s blog is based on the acronym INSIGHT. And for Beth, T means as per her blog. And I respect that.
    So for those who disagree, what would you suggest T should represent?

  11. Anonymous said:

    Of course, I’m sure this way worked (and works) well for Beth and many others and I understand that this blog might be aimed at a certain audience, and thus certain advices come up. But, the internet begin the internet and the world being the world, I am sure many people come across these pieces of advice and I think some “balancing” would be good.

    I’m not sure whether a direct alternative is needed. If I read the previous tips (Imagine, Nurture, Set Aside Your Beliefs, etc) I can imagine that these sort of tips alone might help some (many?) individuals a lot already. I would not assume that the last advice, “Turn to God”, or any other advice similar to this would be essential (for everyone).

    So, for people having problems with the advice to “Turn to God”, maybe it’d be an idea to focus more on the previous tips. If you really want to phrase a similar advice, but your audience is agnostic or atheist, call it “look into your heart” if they seem receptive to that sort of thing.

    I think the best type of councelling is reached by getting to know the person in front of you, and then adjusting your advices in such a way that they’re basically “optimized” for that specific person as well. This might mean phrasing certain advice differently, or putting more emphasis on certain tips that seem to be in line with their personality/beliefs/etc.

    “One size fits all” doesn’t exist.

  12. I have done a stint as a volunteer counsellor. Sometimes, when people are looking for answers (as they would be if they were browsing/googling, and clicked on a link to a blog like this), they are looking because what they currently have, or have tried, is not working. If they feel that whatever is suggested here is not helpful to them, they usually just leave the site immediately.
    Beth has presented her opinions, and suggestions, as to what she has found helpful.
    Deviating from the INSIGHT formula, is not what she has found helpful.
    Not really sure why you are insistent that she has to change any part of it.
    If the above formula doesn’t help you, then maybe you should start your own blog or go contribute to a site that can validate your views.
    Afterall, there are people who might want to just give this a try.
    If it doesn’t work for them, they will look around again, and maybe find your blog or the site you like

  13. Anonymous said:

    Well, you seem to have missed my point completely, and that is a shame. It’s not about what works for me. It’s not about what works for Beth. You are right when you say Beth is presenting her opinions and suggestions, and there is nothing wrong with that either.

    What is a shame – I think – is that she presents the very last “tip”, being “Turn to God”, as an absolute necessity. Yes, again, this is from Beth’s point of view and there’s nothing wrong with publicising your own ideas. The problem is that people might not realise this is from Beth’s perspective and that it might not be necessary for them personally. Then, assuming it is necessary, they might try — and might fail.

    Now, you could say “Well, they should just try something else then” and that is correct, but as they are in a vulnerable position and they see Beth as an authority figure on this subject, THEY might think: “I can’t do this, but it’s necessary! Everything is hopeless! I’m doomed!” (or something similar). To prevent this from happening, I think it might be a good idea to include somewhere that even though the last step has helped and helps numerous people, you can still learn to be empathic even if you are atheist or agnostic and feel you cannot turn to God, or something along those lines.

    Not because I don’t agree or because others might not agree. Not because it’s wrong to write a blog from your own perspective. But because the undesired effect the above might have on certain people who are just at a very vulnerable position right now.

  14. The truth is, in my view, a person “cannot” do this–completely empathize–without God’s help. But in urging them to turn to God, I also believe that they will feel hope and not hopelessness.

    And again, I’m not saying that a person cannot empathize without God. I just feel that we are all limited as humans (Christians and unbelievers) and that God is limitless. That’s where the “extra” ability comes from. You would agree, I hope, that as humans we are all flawed and imperfect. None of us are able to empathize perfectly. That’s my point in this and I don’t feel that recognizing that limitation would harm but only help people to deal with their limitations in whatever way they see fit.

    Again, I’d like to bring an end to this conversation. If anyone feels as you have outlined here, then I believe that having read through these various conversations in the comment section will certainly clear up any confusion. Then they are able to clearly decide for themselves.

    After all, this is a blog that I do not continue to post on and I do not direct anyone to any longer. I realize it is open for all to find, but it is by no means a major resource for people.

  15. Anonymous said:

    Okay, fair enough.

    By the way, reading back I find that I sound quite hostile here and there, which by no means was directed to you personally. Of course, I don’t know you, but the impression I got from the blog is that you’re a very understanding and kind person. I might’ve gotten a little carried away, hm? Of course, I still stand by my opinions, but your reply makes a lot of sense to me too.

    Be well then.

  16. Thanks for understanding and your kind words. Who knew that my “dead” blog would stir up such controversy! :)

  17. Thank you for posting this. I used to have some shred of empathy, but it just disappeared. I have said the sinner’s prayer, but I don’t think I am really a Christian at all. My entire adult life has been sprinkled with sociopathic decisions and pretty much no empathy for others…always thinking about myself, or whatever agenda I want to support. My friends would probably tell you that I have lots of empathy, because I am quite skilled at helping them to seek the bible and pray…and I always help them reason through their issues. But honestly I can’t say that I ever really FEEL for them. I just come up with tactical ways to help. I want to feel something and connect with people. I don’t know when that disappeared.
    Iwas recently fired AGAIN from a job because I am thoughtless and lack empathy. I am afraid that I might be a sociopath and I desperately don’t want to be. I have a 4 year old son, and I’m single. (I’m sure that comes as no surprise, since I can’t seem to have healthy intimate relationships.) I love my son so very deeply and don’t feel abusive toward him at al, but I fear very much that I lack empathy enough to raise him to be a good man. I pray pretty much every night that my son won’t be like me, and that God will help me to raise him with all the normal features that I lack.
    To start, I am going to use your 7 steps to try to create empathy in myself and start caring about others again. I am just so thankful for these steps.

  18. Toni, I’m so sorry to hear of your many struggles with empathy and job loss. I’m guessing that you’re probably “not” a sociopath since you recognize and dislike this tendency you see in yourself. If you were a sociopath, you wouldn’t care one way or another. I’m wondering if you’ve experienced a trauma or some kind of painful relationship or abuse from your past and have chosen to suppress your emotions. You might not even realize that you’re doing it, but it is your minds way of protecting you from further pain or rejection. If that resonates with you, then I would also suggest finding a good Christian counselor who has some knowledge of perhaps PTSD or abuse–whatever is applicable to your situation.

    I will certainly pray for you, Toni. It sounds as if you’re also grieving and feeling shame over the recent job loss. Perhaps you’re a little depressed? Whatever the case, God knows and I will just trust that He can meet your need and be your strength and encouragement through this difficult time.

  19. prabhat parimal said:

    Sometimes i feel i am a narcissist. I get angry very easily and always see myself as the person who deserves to be understood, whose pins need to be understood. Is there ny cure for narcissism?

  20. prabhat parimal said:

    corrections: *Pain, *any ..in the comment above.

  21. I think it’s interesting that people support “multiple truths” or multiple religions; it seems more of a politically correct, nicey-nicey and comfortably objective standpoint than a reasonable one. The world is either flat or round, it’s not simply round to those who feel this is best for them to beleive, ..and flat for those who feel that beleiving in a flat earth is more meaningful and fulfilling. Silly I know, but doesn’t it make sense? You cannot have opposing viewpoints that are both “true”. We don’t acknowledge any scientific proof for the existence of any God or spiritual world, but we do accept certain non-material “ideas” to be true or not, and thus if they are true then an opposing idea is untrue. Seek truth even if it is uncomfortable. No pain, no gain.

  22. The problem with the world being flat or round is that it is a provable “fact.” We have proven that the Earth is round. Anyone who “chooses to believe” the Earth is flat is just wrong. The whole thing with believing in the power of God is… it’s an opinion. God cannot be proven or disproven at this point, and probably never will be proven one way or the other. I like a certain piece of music and say it’s a masterpiece, you say you hate that same piece of music and that it’s the worst piece of garbage ever. Who’s right? We both are from our point of view.

  23. These are wonderful tips to develop empathy. I am doing a school presentation throughout the semester on something we want to improve. I chose my mind/psyche and I would like to improve/develop empathy. We have to find some sort of method or practice that we will use to help become more conscious of our psychological issues/patterns…do you have any suggestions? Stuff like maybe keeping a dream journal, something to do with art or movement I don’t know….

  24. Wow. This touched down exactly on what I have been dealing with my girlfriend. She never can see where im çoming from and simply calls me “needy” or “clingy”, which is not true at all. I constantly do all i can to see her happy, complement her and she doesnt understand that its important to do the same in return. Just lastnight i confronted her, telling her she has no empathy and that makes it impossible for me which is why i, so amazed with ur article..its spot on! I love this woman more than i thought possible after past relationships and just want things to work. Thank you so much, hopefully tonight shell be reading this.

  25. [...] love the first idea presented by blogger Beth Steffaniak from a post she wrote in 2010: “Imagine the person as a child. If you have photos of the person as a child, use [...]

  26. [...] 7 Ways to Develop Empathy and Gain Insight [...]

  27. Everything was FINE with your article until you mentioned GOD and said that it was a HE. Why why why do people need a god? There is no god.

  28. ‘T’ could equal “Tell the truth” or you could follow a 12 Step tradition and ‘Turn to your higher power’. Believing in a God or not still leaves INSIGHT as a great acronym.

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