Empathy In Social Situations And Not Coming Off As Insensitive

Empathy is a bedrock social skill. Broadly speaking, it's the ability to put yourself in another person's shoes. More specifically, people use the term in a variety of ways, and they can be broken down to two subtypes, emotional and cognitive empathy:

It doesn't take much effort to see how these skills could be useful in social situations. A few examples:

Being empathetic doesn't mean you have to become a people pleaser, always mold your actions around what others want, and only tell everyone what you think they want to hear. What empathy does is give you useful information that you can choose to act on or not. If you're talking to a classmate and know that if you bring up Subject A she'll be neutral, and if you bring up Subject B she'll get mildly annoyed, that's better than stumbling into the situation blindly. Say, you need to give your co-worker some criticism. You aren't going to avoid telling them just because they may feel attacked. However, having a sense of how they see the world will help you choose how to phrase your feedback in the most effective way.

Coming across as cold and insensitive

One way people can seem socially awkward is when aspects of their empathy aren't well developed and they unintentionally come off as thoughtless and insensitive.

Less-developed emotional empathy / ability to connect with other's emotions and show support

Less-developed cognitive empathy / ability to consider other's perspectives

Reasons people can come across as unsympathetic and insensitive

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How to develop and show more empathy

Your ability to emotionally and cognitively empathize with people can be improved. No one gets to the point of being a flawless mind reader, but even being moderately better at figuring out what others are thinking and feeling makes a big difference. As with any skill, it takes practice to develop. At first it can feel difficult, distracting, and mentally tiring to socialize while also trying to think about other people's perspectives, but in time you'll get the hang of it and it will become more automatic. Also like with most skills, at first you may use empathy in an exaggerated way before you develop a softer "less is more" style.

Developing cognitive empathy

Expose yourself to other points of view and try to respect them

It's hard to be empathetic if you unconsciously assume your way to doing and thinking about things is the only correct one. Try to learn about other perspectives. I don't even necessarily mean viewpoints you're opposed to, just ones that are different than yours. Read accounts of people's lives. Browse websites that aren't aimed at your crowd. Interact with people from different backgrounds and walks of life. Generally adopt an attitude of curiosity about different points of view.

Try to be non-judgmental and open-minded when faced with a new perspective. Don't look at it through the filter of, "My default way of looking at the world is right, so I'm going to spot all the ways this other one is stupid." When you come across something you don't understand or agree with, try to think, "What motivations or background would I need to have to be this way myself?" Look for the ways you're similar to people instead of different from them. Considering another point of view doesn't mean you have to condone everything about it, but you can at least try to see where it's coming from.

This is an ongoing process, since you can hardly learn about every worldview in a week. If you want to approach this in a systematic way, start with perspectives that are only a little different from you own, and work up to ones you really disagree with.

Practice considering other people's point of view

Either while you're in the middle of talking to someone, or as a thought exercise in your downtime, pick someone and try to get inside their head. For example, if you're not a parent, try seeing things from the mindset of your co-worker who has two young children. What's important to them? What drives them? What type of things would they want to talk about? What wouldn't they want to hear about? And so on.

Learn people's basic needs

A piece of empathy is figuring out what drives other people. Everyone has needs that are unique to them, but most people also share a set of basic ones. Most people want...

Once you start considering these basic needs you're more than halfway there to understanding what makes the people in your life tick. It's pretty easy to decide what actions to take in certain situations when these needs are on your mind. For example, if a friend is telling you a funny story, they want you to seem amused by it, not bored. If a buddy brings a bunch of elaborate homemade treats to a Halloween party, they want you to seem impressed and appreciative of all the work they put into it, not for you to scarf them down without so much as a 'thank you'. Once more, knowing what people want doesn't always mean you have to give it to them, but it's still helpful knowledge to have.

Developing emotional empathy

Learn to respect the role of emotions

People with more logical, cerebral personalities sometimes look down on emotions, and see them as irrational and unnecessary. When a friend or colleague is feeling a strong emotion their first thought isn't, "Oh no! They're so unhappy. How can I comfort them?" It's, "This is so pointless. Why don't they pull themselves together and use their brain to work through their problem?". Yeah, emotions sometimes can lead people astray, but they can't be written off entirely. It's best to have a balance of emotion and logic.

Emotions are essential in making a lot of decisions. More logical people think dry facts are all you need, but often without emotions we're often left with two choices that have an equal amount of pros and cons on each side. It's those gut feelings of, "Mmm, this one makes me happy" or "Yech, I don't want that one" that break the tie.

Emotions also motivate you to act. For example, we've all had times where our life wasn't exactly where we wanted it to be, but we stayed in the rut because while we logically realized things could be better, our circumstances didn't cause us that much emotional pain. It's only when the frustration, sadness, and discouragement build up enough that we finally start to do something.

Emotions are also just a part of being human. Even if you don't have much use for them yourself, you have to accept that they drive most people.

Learn to get in touch with your own emotions

People can have trouble with emotional empathy because they're cut off from their own feelings. If they see a family member looking depressed they may feel sad for them deep down, but not be able to access it. I think some people really are less-emotional than others, but even the most logical, analytical person isn't a complete robot.

People can get out of touch with their feelings because:

The idea of getting in touch with your feelings has a negative touchy-feely connotation, but it's hardly New Age fluff to have a basic awareness of what's going on in your own head. Like I said, emotions are an important part of our decision making, and if you're cut off from them you can't be as effective in social situations. You can also find yourself feeling upset all the time or being self-destructive, and not even know why.

Here are some starter, do-at-home suggestions for getting more in touch with your feelings. I'd caution that if you've gone through traumatic experiences and are suppressing your emotions as a coping mechanism it may be best to do this kind of work with a counselor at your side. Also be careful if you're prone to anxiety attacks that are triggered by noticing one of your bodily sensations, like your heart rate, has changed.

Practice reading other people's emotions

Humans have a built-in capacity to recognize each other's emotions, though some of us are less-naturally skilled at it and could use some practice. There are a few ways you can get that experience:

If this really doesn't come easily to you, it may help to find a resource on body language that has pictures of what different emotions look like, along with some guidelines for recognizing each one.

Practice to get more comfortable showing your support and concern

As I said earlier, some people aren't good at seeming empathetic in the 'showing concern' sense of the word because it makes them feel awkward and self-conscious. Even if they know exactly what to say and do to comfort a distraught friend, it feels forced and artificial. Take it from me, you can get used to showing concern. Even if you're truly compassionate for someone, the first few times you say something like, "Wow, that must be tough..." you may feel like an insincere bad actor, but you'll get more natural. Many people who volunteer for crisis support lines or get into counseling go through this. Even though they're caring and motivated to help, it takes time for them to get comfortable with expressing more verbal support than they may be used to in their day-to-day lives.

Learn when it's appropriate to play along on the surface

You're going to find yourself in situations where someone else is upset about something that doesn't bother you. Even when we make an effort to see things through other people's eyes, we're not always going to have the same emotional reactions they do. Sometimes the most sensitive move is to do what's expected of you. Acting supportive and understanding trumps getting to say everything that's on your mind right at that moment. For example, if your co-workers are all down in the dumps because your city's football team lost in the playoffs, and you can't see why people get so caught up in sports, you could still express your condolences and act a little disappointed yourself.