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How to Be Better with Empathy: Nine Skills to Practice

How to Be Better with Empathy: Nine Skills to Practice

The good news is that even if you aren’t a naturally empathetic person, there is hope. Thankfully it’s a skill that we can work on. I’ve learned over the years not to get overwhelmed here. Choose one area of empathy to grow in, practice it, come back and revisit, and work on another. Take your time.

ONE. Ask the question we don’t want to ask.

If you’d like to know more about yourself, the best (and possibly scariest) question to ask others is this: “How do you experience me?” I may or may not have heard these words when asking that question:

You come off as aggressive and arrogant.
You care only about your own success and work.
You don’t seem to have much awareness about other people because you are too self-focused.
You seem uncomfortable and unresponsive when I bring up emotional pain.

No matter where you are, this question will be helpful because you are learning how you really engage in empathy.

TWO. Remember your Luke 18:13 moment(s).

Luke wrote,

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable. — Luke 18:9 NIV

In the parable, the Pharisee bragged about how amazing he was while the tax collector stood at a distance recognizing his brokenness and crying out. Verse 13 says,

He would not even look up to Heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

The more we understand the depths of our sins and the grace given to us, the more empathy and compassion we will have for others. When we are honest about where we’ve come from and who we are, we begin to slowly heal from indifference, impatience, insecurity, and ignorance, and our hearts become tender with how people are struggling and carrying their pain.

It really comes down to receiving Christ’s love in every part of our lives. Jesus said,

Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. — John 13:34

In other words, if our core identity isn’t formed on the love of Christ, it’s hard to love others well. When we come from a deep place where we know and experience that we are fully loved by God, our insecurities, fears, and selfishness take a back seat and we are able to lean into compassion and empathy toward others.

THREE: Celebrate both big and small wins.

We are great at celebrating big moments in life such as weddings, graduations, birthdays, and anniversaries. But we aren’t so great at smaller celebrations. I would argue many frequent smaller celebrations bring greater empathy and belonging than these once-a-year festivities. My friend recently had a long week due to some significant interpersonal issues at work, so a few of the guys got together late at night with some drinks and laughter to celebrate his finishing the hard week.

FOUR: Delight in others.

As we dance, sing, drink, hug, eat, and share important moments of God’s goodness in our lives, we experience belonging.

We know from neuroscience these activities release happy chemicals in our brains that reduce stress and offer connection. Cynicism and a pessimistic outlook on life are not signs of wisdom and maturity. We have much to celebrate and be thankful for. Let us laugh and be silly with one another, even in celebrating the small things.

Recently, I’ve been exhausted from writing this book. As I’m finishing this chapter, my buddy Jeff sent me a card saying, “You’ve got this! Finish strong!” with a gift card to my favorite local coffee shop where I write every day. It’s been a long, lonely journey writing this book on belonging (oh, the irony!), but I felt my friend’s presence, love, and support.

FIVE: Learn their full story.

I’ve heard it said: “Everyone is fighting a battle you don’t know about. Be kind always.” What if the person who cut you off on the road is actually driving toward a family emergency? What if the person is dealing with mental health issues?

Leading with questions and curiosity instead of assumptions and statements goes a long way. During the height of anti-Asian hate crimes and racial tensions, I shared with my group my pain and frustration. I still remember this moment. One of the guys said, “I’m really new to this. Could you tell me more about AAPI [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders]? What are some books you recommend? Can I ask you some personal questions to understand where you are coming from? I honestly don’t understand it all.”

This meant the world to me.
Understanding gives greater space for grace.
We must read and learn widely.

And for those who are close to us, watch out for the closeness-confirmation bias,1 where we unconsciously tune them out since we already know what they will think and say. Instead of being involved in people’s evolving stories, we make assumptions that hinder us in honoring how they may have changed. If you hear words like “that’s not what I said” or “you are not listening” often from your close friends, it’s time to evaluate your posture. Are you operating out of curiosity or out of closeness-confirmation bias?

SIX: Listen well and validate.

Communication is so much more than words; in fact, it may be more nonverbal than verbal. Facial expressions, tone of voice, body posture, gestures, and physical distance all matter.

When conversing:

  • Pay attention
  • Make eye contact
  • Ask pertinent questions
  • Don’t interrupt

I know this sounds like Communication 101, but we all get this wrong at times and need to work at it to improve. Dallas Willard famously said, “The first act of love is always the giving of attention.”2 Asking “what’s something you are looking forward to this upcoming year?” and making eye contact and being attentive to their answer offers an opportunity to bond and show empathy. Good listening helps to fight against any shame and fear of judgment in vulnerability.

Paying attention and recognizing other people’s bids can be really helpful.3 Validation in listening is something I’ve learned more recently and have found valuable in my own journey of empathy.4

Often when we share, we are longing for someone on the other side to see and support us. Here are some examples of both validating and invalidating responses.

  • VALIDATING RESPONSES: “Oh, wow, that sounds hard!” “That would also drive me crazy.” “You put a lot of work into that.” These acknowledge and offer helpful justification for what the person is going through.
  • INVALIDATING RESPONSES: “You’ll be fine.” “Just suck it up.” “It could be worse.” These result in minimizing and dismissing the other person’s situation and emotions.

As Jesus followers, we must also listen to the Spirit’s leading. We do this because God is already at work in this individual and He knows best. So we pray: Jesus, help me to notice and obey the nudging of the Holy Spirit in this particular situation.

SEVEN: Learn and lean into their personality and preferences.

I have found Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages to be practical and helpful. The five “love languages” he describes are physical touch, quality time, gifts, words of affirmation, and acts of service. The point is that all of us receive and give love (and empathy) differently.

For example, I love receiving words of affirmation. When I’m not doing well, a few words of encouragement can bring me back to life. Especially when the words of affirmation are specific and nuanced, I feel seen and loved because that means the person cared enough to observe and take interest in my life.

Humans are much more complex than simply where they fall on the introvert-extrovert scale. Who we are is also defined by how we see and interact with the world (whether primarily from the head, heart, or gut), how we take in information, what our core fears and communication styles are, and so much more. When there is a greater awareness of our complex selves, our ability to lean in with others is much stronger, and we can be more thoughtful and honoring of the other person. The Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator, the Enneagram, and the Big Five Personality Traits can be helpful assessments for building your awareness.

EIGHT: Give better options.

Generally, we mean well when we respond by saying: “Let me know if you need anything.” However, this puts more responsibility on the recipient by requiring them to both think of their needs and reach out again. I have found it is more thoughtful and helpful to offer several suggestions and let them pick one or two. For example, offer to

  • drop off some food this week,
  • take their kids out to a park so they can get a small break, or
  • gather some friends to talk and laugh together.

This shows that you’ve done some heavy lifting in thinking through what might be helpful and you are giving them the freedom to choose what would most benefit them.

NINE: Practice self-differentiation.

This comes down to our ability to identify and separate what is ours from theirs. This skill is needed for those who, in their efforts of empathy, have the tendency to become entangled in the other person’s feelings, emotions, and situations. This requires boundary work where we learn and begin to practice not owning someone else’s stuff in unhealthy ways (having a “savior complex,” severe fatigue, and even burnout). This requires us to take some time for ourselves by journaling or taking a walk to ask, How am I doing? Is this my stuff or their stuff?

This reminds me of Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches:

Carry each others’ burdens [baros]... for each one should carry their own load [phortion]. — Galatians 6:2–5

On the surface, his words may sound contradictory but notice the two different Greek words that are used here. Baros in Greek refers to a heavy burden and weight that requires assistance. Phortion is more of a traveler’s pack, a load that an individual can carry. Self-differentiation invites us to discern what we are called to be responsible for and what we are called to share and carry together.

I have found that working on one skill at a time is most effective. If we want to master any skill in cooking, musical instruments, or sports, we repeat it until it becomes natural to us. Which of these nine skills does it seem like God is inviting you to practice in this season?

How do you know if you’re growing in empathy?

HERE IS THE TEST: People in distress come to you for comfort.

WE PRAY: Jesus, please enlarge my capacity to suffer with others well.

  1. Kenneth Savitski et al., “The Closeness-Communication Bias: Increased Egocentrism Among Friends Versus Strangers,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, no. 1 (January 2011): 269–73,
  2. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciples: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), 210.
  3. Zach Brittle, “Turn Towards Instead of Away,” Gottman Institute, accessed August 1, 2022,
  4. I recommend reading Michael S. Sorensen, I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships (Lehi, UT: Autumn Creek Press, 2017).

Excerpted with permission from Made to Belong by David Kim, copyright David Kim.

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As believers, we’re called to love as Jesus loved. He embodied empathy and so should we. Let’s grow in empathy by continuing to try new ways to love as Jesus loves us! ~ Devotionals Daily