Can Empathy Be Learned?

Being empathetic may come naturally for some, but that doesn't mean all hope is lost.
By Anna Reeves McCutcheon
September 30, 2021

If you clicked on this blog, you’re either: 

A.) Wondering if that person you have a hard time with has a chance of growing into an empathetic individual or if they’re stuck as they are forever, or 

B.) Trying to figure this out for yourself. 

For the sake of clarity, I’m going to talk to you. But you can also apply this information to that sister, or friend, or mother-in-law that you feel doesn’t feel (or however you want to define your perception of them). 

For the sake of your time: YES. Empathy can be learned. (Phew!)

Research suggests that genetics determine about 50 percent of how empathetic a person is. The other 50-ish percent can be learned. 

Here’s how Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy: 

“The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” 

Basically, an empathetic person can understand and share another’s feelings. But it doesn’t come naturally for everyone, right?

Here are some things you can do if you need to learn empathy because it doesn’t come naturally:

1. Understand that you are biased. Everyone is. 

Every moment you’ve experienced has formed itself into the larger story of you, your life, who you are, and why. Think about the moments that have influenced you. Whatever comes to mind has shaped who you are right now. Your moments have been just as impactful as those that have shaped your sister, husband, father-in-law, or co-worker. Their moments have molded them differently. Their moments impact every decision they make, just as your moments have for you. This leads to my next point…

2. Ask questions.

The next time you speak with someone, let your primary goal be to learn more about them. Jodi Halpern, psychiatrist and bioethics professor at the University of California, says that the core of empathy is curiosity. As you ask and learn about the experiences that have shaped the person you’re engaging with, you may empathize with them more. It will also help you understand that who they are is a result of what they’ve experienced.  

3. Read stories.

Dr. Helen Riess (author of The Empathy Effect) says this about reading: “You enter the thoughts, heart and mind of another person who’s not like you, and it really does break down barriers.” What an amazing excuse to curl up with a good story – yes, fiction applies to this.” 

4. Join in.

The thing about empathy is that it’s not passive. In A Way of Being, clinical psychologist professor Carl Rogers put it this way: “Empathy involves being sensitive, moment to moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person, to the fear or rage or tenderness or confusion or whatever, that [they] are experiencing. It means temporarily living in [their] life…” 

What Rogers describes is what it looks like to engage in another person’s life and experience. A great way to engage with people is to volunteer in your community. It’s one thing to witness brokenness (i.e., the homeless man who frequents the same bench on your commute to work). It’s entirely another thing to serve within the brokenness (i.e., feeding the man). The former is passive, and the latter is active. 

You’re normal if empathy is not something that comes naturally to you. 

You are not a hopeless case (and I hope no one has ever made you feel like you are because that’s just not true). 

Take a breather. You can learn. I urge you to remember that everyone has things that don’t come naturally to them. Yours just happens to be empathy. You have everything you need to care deeply for others, but you don’t have to do this alone. Let someone you trust know about your plan for working on empathy so they can come alongside you in your journey and offer assistance/accountability when needed. You can do this!

Sources:

Counseling and Therapy Skills by David Martin

Can Empathy Be Taught?

How to Be More Empathetic

Other blogs:

How To Build Empathy In Marriage

How to Teach Your Child to Be Empathetic

What To Do When Your Spouse Lacks Empathy

3 Ways Empathy Can Strengthen Your Marriage

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