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:
- If someone has emotional empathy they can pick up on other people's emotions and have an appropriate feeling in response. For example, if they're around as their friend gets some upsetting news, they feel sad and sympathetic for them. If their friend gets a piece of good news, they feel happy and excited themselves. Sometimes people refer to empathy just as this ability to feel what another person is feeling. At other times what they think of as empathy is acting on those feelings and showing concern, support, and so on (e.g., "Andrew's so empathetic. When his cousin fall and hurt her ankle he tried to make her feel better.")
- Cognitive empathy is the ability to more logically get inside someone's head and take on their perspective. You don't necessarily feel what they're feeling, but you can rationally understand how they see the world (e.g., a certain TV show doesn't bother you, but you can grasp how it would be offensive to someone with more traditional values). Again, some people see this kind of empathy as simply being able to deduce what's going through another person's mind, while others don't think someone is being empathetic unless they effectively put their conclusions to use.
It doesn't take much effort to see how these skills could be useful in social situations. A few examples:
- Whether they're feeling cheerful or worried you can show someone that you're tuned in and care about what they're going through.
- While making conversation you can bring up topics people will likely be interested in and steer clear of ones that will bother them.
- You can generally get a sense of what people want out of an interaction, and direct it accordingly (e.g., do they want to learn about you, talk about a hobby, or maybe brag about themselves and feel important?)
- You can adjust your conversation style based on the other person's personality, sense of humor, and so on, e.g., if they're direct and straightforward, you can be too. If they seem more straight-laced, you can hold back on your darker jokes.
- You can know to do thoughtful things for your friends, like being extra-supportive on the day they have to give an important presentation.
- When disagreeing or negotiating with someone you can see things from their point of view, rather than blindly thinking you're clearly right and they're your enemy for daring to have a different opinion.
- You'll generally approach new people with a more open-minded, accepting attitude.
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
- Not responding much at all when people are really upset or happy.
- Giving invalidating, tone deaf responses to people who are distressed, e.g., "Why are you so upset your rabbit died? You knew it was only going to a live a few years when you bought it."
- Seeming uncaring by not showing much reaction to bad news about other people, e.g., looking unfazed when they learn their roommate has been in a car accident.
Less-developed cognitive empathy / ability to consider other's perspectives
- Going on about a topic that bores your friend, because you haven't thought, "Maybe they don't care about this subject as much as I do."
- Offending people by making crass or edgy jokes around the wrong crowd.
- Making comments that unintentionally insult people because you didn't think about what it would be like to be on the receiving end of that kind of remark.
- Bringing up topics that are inappropriate for your company, e.g., telling stories about doing drugs to your conservative grandparents.
- Sharing opinions at inappropriate times, e.g., ranting about how stupid a war is within earshot of a co-worker whose son was recently wounded in combat.
- Being hurtfully blunt and casually critical, e.g., "That shirt looks really bad on you. It looks too tight on your pot belly... What? Why are you getting mad?! I'm trying to help you dress better."
- Disregarding things that are important to other people, e.g., forgetting an anniversary, continuing to bring up a sensitive topic around a friend even after they've asked you to stop.
- Getting annoyed at someone for not grasping something that's obvious to you, because you don't consider how they may not have the same education, experience, or inborn talents.
- Looking down on people for what you see as their bad decisions, without taking into account how their life circumstances have been totally different than yours.
- Being rude and demanding to service staff, because you don't consider how busy they are with other customers.
- Seeming to take close friends for granted by always letting them do nice things for you, but not realizing they'd like you to show the odd bit of appreciation in return.
Reasons people can come across as unsympathetic and insensitive
- They're socially inexperienced and either it isn't on their radar that they should care about other people's feelings and perspectives, or they know, but they aren't very good at it. They may unconsciously have a mindset of, "This is how I would feel in this situation, so other people should be the same."
- They don't know how to show they're concerned or caring, or it makes them feel flustered and awkward. If a friend is upset they're not sure what to do with themselves, so they say nothing. They may come off as emotionally blank because they're too stuck in their head worrying that they don't know how to respond properly.
- They have more logical, detached personalities, and just don't get as emotional about things. News that may upset some people, like a child from across the country going missing, doesn't get to them because they think, "Well I don't know them personally, so why should it affect me?" What someone else sees as an insult they may see as a dry, rational critique.
- People with a more solitary, independent social style sometimes unintentionally become too focused on their own needs and forget to consider everyone else's. It's not that they're selfish monsters, just that they develop some bad habits as a side-effect of spending most of their time in a mindset where they only have to worry about what will be best for them.
- I'm not trying to say all teenagers are spoiled or evil or anything, but sometimes when people are younger their empathy isn't as fleshed out simply because they haven't had enough life experience. They haven't encountered enough hardship or been exposed to many contrasting worldviews, and so have a tougher time relating to people who are hurting or who see things differently than they do. Again, they aren't totally unfeeling sociopaths, just that their empathetic responses aren't at their full potential.
- In terms of cognitive empathy, people on the autism spectrum can have trouble taking on another person's perspective. Emotional empathy-wise, they may have trouble reading other people's non-verbal communication, and discerning their feelings in the first place. If they do pick up on someone's emotion they usually have no issue with having an emotionally empathetic response. However, they might have trouble signalling that response if their facial expressions tend to be on the blanker side.
- If someone is going through a lot of stress and emotional turmoil, their condition will naturally narrow their focus onto their own problems.
- So far I've given some more benign, accidental reasons someone could seem insensitive, but the fact is some people lack empathy because they've got a selfish, self-absorbed, arrogant, or closed-minded side to their personality. Those are clearly negative traits, which we all show from time to time, but if you realize you do have them it's always something you can work on.
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...
- ...to be liked.
- ...to be respected.
- ...to feel like they're important to their friends and on their minds.
- ...to spend at least some time being social for its own sake.
- ...to be kept in the loop about what their close friends and family are up to.
- ...to feel like the things they have to say are interesting or entertaining.
- ...to feel appreciated and acknowledged for the things they do for others.
- ...to feel like their thoughts, emotions, and actions are healthy, reasonable and "normal".
- ...to feel understood and supported when they're going through a tough time.
- ...to be given the benefit of the doubt when they screw up.
- ...to not be embarrassed or have their flaws or failures thrown in their face.
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:
- They over-emphasize the rational side of their personality.
- They learned they should repress their emotions while growing up (e.g., they lived in a toxic household where everyone had to pretend to be fine on the surface, they were raised to believe men should be tough and stoic.)
- Their strong emotions upset and confuse them, and they've learned to push them away rather than deal with them.
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.
- Get into the habit of asking yourself, "What emotion am I experiencing right now?" Do this randomly throughout the day, and when you're vaguely emotionally charged up. Sometimes we'll be feeling a certain way, and won't even be aware of it until we check in with ourselves.
- At times when you ask yourself what you're feeling the answer won't be an emotion, but an opinion or explanation, like "She shouldn't have done that!" or "She had a rough childhood and can't help it". Sometimes it will be a vague term like "upset" or "out of sorts". Ask again, "What specific emotions am I having though?"
- When you're having an emotion, and you're in a safe place to do so, don't try to push it away. Take your time and let yourself soak in it. Turn off your inner monologue and try to tune into what's physically happening in your body. Is your jaw clenching? Is your stomach upset? Do you want to make a glum face and slump your shoulders? Do you have a hot feeling in your chest? Could you use any of these observations to let you know when you're feeling the same emotion in the future? Even if the emotion is on the stronger or more uncomfortable side, realize it won't hurt you or make you go crazy, and will pass in time.
- Don't be too quick to assume you know what your emotional response is to a situation. To repeat, take some time to connect with what's happening in your body. Your mind may want to quickly tell you something didn't bother you, but if you tune into your physical response you'll realize you're actually angry.
- Try to add more nuance to the way you identify your emotions. For example, instead of calling an emotion "sad" ask yourself if a more accurate label might be disappointed, regretful, dejected, and so on.
- In general, whenever you're having an emotion, try to see if there's another one beneath it. It's not always the case, but one emotion can be masked by another. Emotions like anger and anxiety can cover up less-"acceptable" ones like sadness and shame.
- Some people have default emotions that they feel whenever they're upset for any reason, which drown out their other feelings. Again, common "go to" emotions are anger and anxiety. Think about whether this is the case for you.
- Try to find out if you use any tactics to avoid or bypass your emotions. Some common ones are: Distracting yourself with work or entertainment, immediately jumping into intellectualizing problem-solving mode, making jokes about the situation, changing your mood with substances, or always being around other people so you're forced to keep it together.
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:
- Put on a movie or TV show and try to identify the emotions the actors are making. Of course, watch their facial expressions and body language, but also gather clues from the context they're in. Broad, exaggerated comedies or soap operas tend to be the easiest to read, while nuanced, understated dramas are the toughest. Muting the sound will make the exercise more difficult, since the dialogue won't give you hints.
- Go to a public place, like a mall's food court or a nightclub, and do some unobtrusive people watching. Nonchalantly look at different people, who are either alone or in groups, and try to read their moods. Who's bored? Who's stressed out and in a rush? Who's cheerful? Who's trying to be the center of attention? Who feels shy? Notice how some people have more expressive or restrained styles of showing their feelings.
- Try to read the emotions of people you're interacting with. If you're having a friendly chat with someone they're not going to show you the wildest anger or the deepest sadness, but you can still try to look for changes in the more subdued expressions they will make. Maybe they'll look a little more stressed as they talk about an upcoming assignment, seem mildly bored while you're talking about a topic they're only half-interested in, and then perk up when the subject switches to one they're more excited about.
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.