Mental health week is here and this year, the theme is empathy.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” But what does that really mean? To put yourself in someone else’s shoes means that you have taken the time and care to imagine yourself in another person’s situation and do your best to understand their circumstance. Doing this is practicing empathy and the positive results of practicing empathy can trickle down into your personal and professional life.  

It is important to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. To sympathize is to feel pity for another person, look down on their situation and be removed from the person’s true feelings and experiences. Empathy is when you meet the person where they are, get on the same level and act vulnerable, compassionate and open with them.

Did you know that there are three different kinds of empathy that you can learn to practice? Learning about these different types of empathy can help you relate better to the person you’re speaking with and can help you understand the best way to support them.

  • Affective empathy is when you seek to understand how people are feeling and try your best to relate to them through offering support, asking questions or listening intently.
  • Somatic empathy is when someone might feel the same or similar emotions as the other person. For example, if someone is feeling embarrassed, you might also feel embarrassed; your stomach might feel queasy, you might feel hot and you might feel flush, even though the situation did not happen to you.
  • Cognitive empathy can also be called “perspective-taking.” This is the ability to understand a person’s mental state and recognize what another person is going through or experiencing.

Practicing empathy in your everyday life can help improve both personal and professional relationships. It can help create a bond and trust between people when they are vulnerable, caring and empathetic with one another.

Incorporating empathy in the workplace is also incredibly important as it can create several beneficial and positive connections and results. Practicing empathy in one’s job can help improve communication between co-workers as well as managers and employees. It fosters trust in working relationships, increases productivity, improves customer service and generally improves communication.

There are several simple steps that you can take to help you become more empathetic. A good place to start practicing empathy is to actively listen. Active listening means that you are listening to what the person is saying more than you speak. Doing this can help you understand their situation more clearly and you can then offer better help based on what they say. Active listening can also include asking nonjudgmental questions. This can help you better understand their situation and offer meaningful support.

Offer to help based on what the other person has to say. They might just want a trustworthy ear to vent to, so ask if they want you to listen or if they would like you to share any advice that you might have. Sometimes being a sounding board is all a person needs.   

Validate their feelings; remind them their feelings matter and that it’s okay to feel the emotions they’re experiencing. It can be hard for people to open up and express their mental and emotional state, so validating what they feel can be a very affirming experience.

Developing empathy is a skill and it can take practice. But don’t be afraid to practice being empathetic in everyday life. You can read books, talk to people and learn from what they have to say. Challenge your prejudices and privilege and get out of your usual environment to open your eyes and heart to what goes on in your community and the world.

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