Those of you active in the 7 Day Startup facebook community may know that I’m about to drop my next book. It’s called Create or Hate and discusses the barriers that most of us erect within our own minds that hold us back from achieving our true creative potential.

One of the chapters is devoted to the concept of empathy, and how developing your empathetic side can be a catalyst to improving your personal interactions and helping you on the road to becoming a creator and not a hater.

What is empathy?

Empathy is all about making a meaningful connection with another. It’s about understanding and feeling. In it’s purest form empathy is a rare commodity and a skill that requires thought and practice to master.

Let’s face it, many people are self-absorbed and lack any real empathy for others outside of their first degree of separation. Too busy, don’t care, play the blame game – they probably deserved it, harden up, build a bridge and get over it..all common buzz phrases to those for whom empathy is an alien concept.

The secret to empathy is not imagining what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. Because all that does is put you in their shoes. It’s them in their shoes you need to understand, not you in their shoes. You need to first accept that you really don’t know what it’s like to be someone other than yourself.

Once you understand that, you won’t be as quick to judge and will be more likely to listen and observe in order to understand people better. Making snap judgments on the circumstances of others and offering magic bullet, one size fits all solutions, is a big empathy killer.

Empathy vs sympathy

Empathy is feeling with people. Sympathy is feeling for people.

Silver lining someone’s issue that they’ve been brave enough to share, or putting a positive spin on it to make them feel better, is more about you and your feelings. When you prescribe simple solutions to people’s problems, that’s mistakenly putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. While it’s admirable to want to make someone feel better about their circumstance, this may be counter-productive to building empathy if the person feels they aren’t being listened to and receiving unconditional acceptance.

Practicing true empathy requires you to enter someone else’s sacred and vulnerable space. Offering empathy rather than sympathy requires you to recognise the perspective of the other person as their inherent truth and remaining non-judgmental.

Be sure to check out this wonderful video on the topic, which displays how empathy fuels connection, whereas sympathy drives disconnection. This quote at the end of the video sums it up perfectly for me: “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is a connection.”

Strategies to improve your empathy

So how else can we better build this magical connection known as empathy?

Practise being selfless and actively seek opportunities to help others and make a difference.

Practise looking at situations from the point of view of others as often as possible. Look to be of service to others. I’ve based a lot of my content marketing focus on this very concept.

And practise gratitude, being more grateful will make you less hateful. I’ll talk about gratitude a bit more in an upcoming blog post.

Spend more time in-person with friends, customers and business colleagues. It’s very easy to make snap judgements online and forget about the people behind the status updates. Spending more time in person, cuts through it all and helps you to remember and really understand the person.

Notice empathy in others. If you can notice it when you see it, you are more likely to improve your own skills.

Create more things. It’s very easy to judge someone else for something they made if you don’t ever create anything for yourself. The more things you make yourself, the more you will understand what people go through in putting their ideas out into the world.

Practice reading other people’s emotions. What do you notice about their body language, their speed of talking, their eyes, their words. The more you can understand how people express emotions, the more you will understand about other people.

Shut up and listen!

Empathy is all about listening. Give the other person your undivided attention. Stop yourself from interjecting and try to use non verbal cues to show you’re paying attention. Most people don’t practise effective listening skills, in fact most people don’t listen properly beyond the first few seconds. They’re too busy thinking about what to say next themselves!

Asking open ended questions, paraphrasing and employing reflective listening are all good skills to practice if you want to get better at empathy.

Try to avoid giving advice or solutions in the moment. This can be tricky at first, but try to listen without judgement and paraphrase your understanding of what the person is feeling or going through. There’s a time and a place for well intentioned advice, so stay in the empathy zone and don’t interrupt with ‘solutions’. That can come later if necessary, when the person is not requiring you to be there for them on an empathetic level.

And try not to deflect the conversation towards other topics in the belief that you’ll take their mind off the issue and make them feel better. Because this strategy is all about you – either self validation for making the other person ‘feel better’ or to make you feel less uncomfortable about the other person’s state.

Holding space for the other person and letting them know that they are being heard and that their feelings are valid is what displaying empathy is truly about.

Volunteer your time to helping others

Volunteering to help others is a great empathy builder. Doing things like helping deliver food to the homeless or visiting elderly or sick people can help you gain a better understanding of the plight of others. That ‘dishevelled bum’ on the street corner will materialise into a flesh and blood storyboard if you take the time to help and listen. Putting yourself in scenarios to practise listening without prejudice will help raise your empathy levels.

Imagination = empathy  = creation

As I’ve already mentioned, a key component to empathy is picturing what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes as them and not you. To achieve this you’re going to need to call upon one of the biggest catalysts of creation – imagination.

Empathy is about imagination. Your goal in being empathetic is to imagine what it’s like to be that person and feel what they are feeling. If you can improve your empathy, you improve your imagination. Imagination is the source of all creativity.

Building empathy through imagination creates a fertile breeding ground for creativity. In short, building your empathy can inspire you to make more stuff.

Spiritual empathy

For those willing to embrace empathy on more a spiritual level, Tonglen, an ancient Tibetan meditation of giving and receiving, is worth investigating. It’s a visualisation technique that involves taking away the suffering or distress of others on the in-breath and replacing it with recognition, support, compassion and love on the out-breath. The Dalai Lama is said to practise it every day.

Mindfulness & meditation practice is another breathing based technique advocated by some as an effective way of becoming more empathetic. Mindfulness is a concept that involves paying attention to things as they are in the moment, with an open hearted attitude of curiosity and acceptance. You can practise this by applying it to everyday stuff like going for a walk or having a shower. It can help get you to a zen-like level of self comfort, which is great for developing your empathic and creative sides.

Practise feeling empathy for foes as well as friends

Empathy is much easier to channel when you share common ground. So this one can be a real challenge from a compassionate perspective. It will require you to let go of your own feelings and discomforts and attempt to feel empathy for the person that just cut in front of you on the road or whose philosophical outlook you might disagree with strongly. This is what I like to call a DEP; a Difficult Empathy Problem! But if you can practise letting go of your own perspective and try to feel what the other person may be going through to behave in such a manner, then having empathy for others more ‘deserving’ will be a cinch.

Bringing empathy to the business table

If you are an entrepreneur, the good news continues. Empathy is not only one of the most valuable life skills, it’s also one of the most valuable business and marketing skills. Poor business people present their offer to customers as if they are speaking to themselves. Great marketers have deep empathy for the customer, and a true understanding of who they are, what they feel, how they speak, what they care about and what drives them. This enables them to speak to their customers in a way that is more likely to get them to buy your product.

This is why businesses pay copywriters to write their sales materials, because most business owner don’t have enough empathy. Copywriters know the secret to great copy is to have deep empathy for the customer.