Empathy is a powerful tool in relating to other people. This mode of feeling allows you to step into another's shoes and experience life as they do. Empathy encompasses both mental and emotional processes -- part of it is natural, but it also can be learned. Practicing empathy can lead to a greater connection with others in which you become more loving and less judgmental.
To improve your empathy, you have to understand what it is. Empathy involves a way of thinking as well as a way of feeling, respectively cognitive and emotional empathy. You must be able to think about what it is like to be in another person's situation but also conjure that person's feelings within yourself. Cognitive empathy is accurately visualizing another's emotional state. Emotional empathy is the vicarious experience of someone else's feelings. Understanding these two elements is the first step to improving your own empathy.
Taking perspective encompasses the cognitive component of empathy and helps you improve your own empathy. By imagining how others feel based on their situation, you better identify with them. For instance, when witnessing someone else's grief at the loss of a loved one, picture how you would feel losing someone close to you. While your experience is not the same as someone else's, you can get close to how they feel through the lens of your own grief, whether imagined or real. This process is a building block in empathizing with others.
Listening and Vulnerability
Connecting to the emotions of others requires the ability to listen and be vulnerable. Active listening requires that you engage yourself in the words of others -- with empathy, this means hearing others' stories without distraction. Once you listen, you must allow yourself to feel what others may feel. Vulnerability deconstructs the walls that exist between you and other people, giving you the opportunity to get closer to how others may feel. These two elements work together to increase your capacity to experiences others' emotional lives vicariously.
To practice improving your empathy, you must take the perspectives of others. Pay attention to others and their verbal and nonverbal communication, including their tone, posture or expressions. Consider how they might be feeling and how you would feel in a similar circumstance by asking yourself what someone else's experience may be like. Think about what the other person wants. Each of these factors puts you deeper into someone else's world, allowing you to build your empathy by taking their perspective.