Simple Steps to Improve Empathy and Become Self-Aware

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

– Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Last week I explained emotional intelligence and its importance. This week I’ve compiled advice I found on the subject of self-awareness, empathy, and how to develop them.

As I researched this post, I realized that empathy and self-awareness, the two cores of “What I See” emotional awareness, cannot be separated: you can’t truly understand someone else until you understand yourselfTwitter . Maybe you can on a surface or artificial level, but not enough to really connect with someone.

Note: I know these types of posts can be overwhelming. Many articles out there make it seem  like you have to apply all “10 things you must do…”; I just think you need to find what works for you. There is a lot of information in this article because different things work for different people. Don’t feel like you have to do them all (although you can if you want to), just do the ones you respond to.

Alright, here we go!

Self-Awareness and how to find it

Self-awareness is about observing our response to what happened…”
– Lori Deschene, Tiny Buddha, Develop Self-Awareness and Improve Your Relationships (emphasis added)

In my readings, I found that self-awareness begins with:

Mindfulness. Yes, that vague word you’ve been hearing everywhere. What does it really mean? Simply put, mindfulness is actively and openly paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and actionsTwitter . There are several ways to practice it:

    • Meditate. I was a skeptic, but then I started with five-minute guided beginner meditations through the Stop, Breathe, Think app. It vastly improved (and continues to improve) my day, and I still find it incredible that something so simple can have such a huge influence. Here is a great 5-minute meditation for observing your emotions:

If you’re still skeptical, I recommend the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris. You can also listen to this podcast or watch him talk about medication here:

  • Take inventory of your emotions and surroundings, and ask yourself questions. “What am I feeling? What triggered it?” If you’re not sure how to do this, see this article for a simple action plan. The Stop, Breathe, Think app also helps with this.
  • Notice physical reactions to your emotions. Does your jaw clench when you’re angry? Do you talk a lot or interrupt others when you’re excited? Does your leg shake when you’re nervous or impatient?
  • “Check-in” to your life every once in a while. So much of our lives are automated or routine, we tend to function on auto-pilot. Instead, try to pay attention to what you’re doing and why, then ask yourself questions like: is it healthy? Is it stressful?

Understand your life story. Identify and understand the experiences in your life and how they’ve made you who you are.

“How you understand your narrative frames both your current actions and your future goals… How much you confront your life’s challenges [sic] defines your level of self-awareness.”
– Bill George, Know Thyself: How to Develop Self-Awareness

Seek honest feedback. How do others see you? Ask the people who are closest to you, who will give you honest answers (and not just make you feel good or tell you what you want to hear), and who you trust. For more information, see the last two points in this article.

Empathy

Put yourself in other people’s shoes. The exhibit below literally has you do this.

walk a mile in my shoes empathy museum
An interactive exhibit at the new Empathy Museum in London
  • Become and active listener and observer. This article by Chad Fowler explains this best.
empathy map
Sarah Hervieux, Skills Society Action Lab
  • Open yourself to others. Find people you trust and initiate vulnerability. Tell them your hopes, fears, and dreams. When you do, they’ll open up to you as well.

  • Look at issues from other people’s perspectives. Where are they coming from?  What have they gone through? Why do they feel the way they do?
  • Challenge stereotypes and prejudices. Find a connection or shared identity. Put a human face to other people’s struggles.Twitter As you look at your story, listen to other people’s stories as well.
  • Be a neutral party to someone else’s disagreement. Try to understand the issue from both sides. Reference Chad Fowler’s article above.
  • Read literature and watch films. Studies show that reading and watching films can improve your empathy.Twitter  Check out the Empathy Library (started by Roman Krznaric, the same guy who created the Empathy Museum referenced above) for recommendations.
  • When reviewing creative works, in addition to your own response, ask yourself: “What do other people like about it?” This is especially true for classics or anything well received that you personally don’t like or understand.
  • Travel abroad. Immerse yourself in other cultures, leave your bubble and have new experiences.
  • Volunteer. Help those less fortunate than you.

Study

  • Read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Specifically Section 2 Chapter 1 (become genuinely interested in other people) and Section 3 Chapter 8 (try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view).

How to Win Friends & Influence People dale carnegie

  • Take a social psychology class and learn why people behave the way they do. Coursera has a free online class, or you can try your local community college.
  • For romantic relationships: read John Medina’s Empathy Reflex. He discusses how to describe the emotions you think you’re seeing in your partner and also the importance of guessing where your partner’s emotions are coming from.

That’s a lot to work with, but you made it this far! Now, while you’re working on your own self, also take a look at these articles from Dr. Travis Bradberry: one explains how to read other people’s body language and the other how to practice your own. Also, this Ted Talk by Daniel Goleman:

As Goldman explains, according to research, the number one reason why people lack empathy is they don’t have time for it. So if this is something you really want to work on, you have to make time and effort in.

And also do the fun parts (I know you love quizzes): a quiz to test your empathy and Reading the Mind in the Eye.

If you are a parent or teacher, here is a resource to help you teach empathy to children.

OK, now what?
Don’t just be inspired to change, take the first step! And let this community support you! Choose an action to focus on and share it in the comments below.

I created a worksheet to help you identify and keep track of your emotions and your reactions as well as help you find a way to cope with it. Get it here.

Next post: The 3rd (and final) post in our Emotions Series: self and relationship management (the “What I do” aspects of emotional intelligence), emotional hijackings, and how to regulate and control your emotions

This post contains affiliate links to books I recommend. This means that when you click through to buy the product, a portion of the sale goes to me to help cover the cost of running this blog.


9 thoughts on “Simple Steps to Improve Empathy and Become Self-Aware

  1. Another great post! I’m surprised you didn’t mention Brene Brown’s work with empathy, but I also like you referenced other, lesser-known sources. I teach a first-year seminar course to college freshmen. When we talk about diversity and social activism, I start by discussing empathy and seeking to understand different perspectives. It really sets the tone for an educational, open dialogue about a difficult topic. Thanks for another great post!

  2. Thank you for this incredible post! I struggle with anxiety, so I often turn to mindfulness and meditation to help me slow down and figure out what’s actually going on in my head. I’ve heard nothing but great things about the “Stop, Breathe, Think” app and am definitely looking forward to trying it out. I also loved the point you made concerning empathy; you can’t understand where someone else is coming from unless you understand yourself FIRST. Great advice (:

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