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Ask HN: How to build empathy?
212 points by break_the_bank on March 20, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 164 comments
As an engineer I run cycles of listening, paraphrasing and then solutionizing almost every day. This doesn't translate well in friendships & relationships where the other person just wants someone to listen. At the same time I rate lowly on empathy scoring tests on the internet. Other technical folks here who might have gone through this,

1. How did you develop your listening skill?

2. How to be more empathetic?

Update: Some more questions

1. What common failure modes do you hit in your relationships as a low empathy person?

2. How do you avoid them?

I think cultivating curiosity about others is integral to building empathy, but it's a lifelong practice. I still find it very easy to project my own experiences onto others - an easy shortcut that drains my interest in them and makes listening hard. After all, if I feel I already know what's important to know about them, why listen?

Where I've found the most personal growth has been in continually re-learning the strangeness of other people's inner worlds. I try to imagine each person I meet inhabits an alternate universe, just as rich and nuanced as I feel my own is. So a healthy spirit of exploration and generosity helps, although it requires treating yourself the same.

A good shorthand I heard a long time ago from someone else on HN: when someone is expressing a problem to you, consider it your job to build a picture of their mental state that you can repeat back to them and have them recognize as their own. Good luck!

I often think that if I had one supernatural wish to make, I’d like to inhabit the inner-life and sensations of someone else. See, feel, hear, think, intuit, and fear like they do. Not as an observer, but as a first-hand experience. Whether that person is dumb, hyper-intelligent, manic, depressed, or autistic.

As I mature I’m starting to appreciate how very different our inner-experiences can be. Even for something as simple as what we experience when we count silently in our heads: Some people hear a voice counting numbers, some see the numbers without auditory cues, and some feel the counting as pulses in their bodies.

For this reason, I would very much like to inhabit someone else to feel just how divergent those experiences may be.

I think we have something that emulates it: operational systems. iPhone vs Android, Windows vs Linux. Although for the experience to be as divergent as with humans we would need millions of OSs.

Experimenting with different doses of psychedelics can give some insight into differing states possible in your own mind, which may be somewhat of a proxy representation.

Along the same lines, observing how different people react to different psychoactive substances (and talking to them about what they experience) also gives quite valuable insight into the diverse inner lives of people, imo.

I also believe that that might be one of the main reasons of alcohol having established itself as the 'drug of choice' in society, even though there would have been a number of alternatives. Alcohol works great as a social lubricant because in moderate doses, it puts most people in very similar internal states, thus narrowing the gap between their internal worlds and making it easier to relate to others.

With cannabis for example, even at low doses the drug affects people quite differently and makes it more complicated to model other people's inside world.

> I think cultivating curiosity about others is integral to building empathy

See the dart game scene in the show Ted Lasso:

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZ4YSXv6Xkg

That scene gave me chills while watching it, and chills just now while re-watching it.

So good.

Lovely scene. Thank you for sharing!

I use two complementing strategies:

- Developing empathy towards myself first, that is, being able to observe feelings that arise within me and then being able to accept these feelings as they are. I have found this to be very relieving. A technique that helped me was meditation; training the mind like a muscle to be able to observe & recognize feelings.

- Turning this outwards to others, the works of Marshall Rosenberg on the NonViolent Communiction (NVC) [1] had a profound impact on my perception of feelings of others. I'm trying to follow the essence of the book, rather than copying the phrases outlined there. I'm seeing more and more that NVC can be applied to business as well as personal relationships [2]

Applying these to your example, it might be interesting to explore what do you _feel_ when the other person just wants you to listen. What is it that you _need_ out of the relationship and what is it that the _other_ side needs [3]?

[1]: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/71730.Nonviolent_Communi...

[2]: https://marcel.is/contractor-didnt-deliver/

[3]: https://marcel.is/conflict-resolution/

Adding to this, there is a specific kind of meditation you could try called metta (aka loving-kindness) where you focus on cultivating benevolence towards yourself and all things. During a session you follow a similar sequence: first focus on cultivating loving-kindness towards yourself (since this is the base from where empathy grows) then you gradually extend it to people you love out to people who you have difficulty with. If mindfulness is an exercise to train your mind to observe itself, metta trains your mind to observe other minds.

Also second Rosenberg's book. It can come across as condescending if applied too heavily but it's a great analysis on language during conflict.

I would add that this can be extremely challenging (and possibly triggering) for people who had traumatic childhoods. In those cases it is best to start with loving compassion towards a beloved pet, for example — something simpler, that is not so emotionally charged.

Either way the metta instruction I’ve encountered has often failed because it failed to emphasize the sensation of emotion. It’s not lying there thinking about how much you love something. It’s thinking of the thing or person you love and trying to locate the specific sensation in your body, and then grow it.

Many people mistake ritual dissociation for meditation, which can be really really harmful.

Can confirm. Was very empathetic towards others.

Repeated tragedies, pain and abuse can make you lose most or even all empathy. Even as an adult.

I have some back now, but nothing like I used to be.

Someone at work was very sad the other day, and I actually felt a little bad for them. First time in several years I felt anything at all. Hopefully get more back.

I bet you will. Try to be kind to yourself as it happens. My experience is that it can be very painful — like when your leg falls asleep and then you suddenly get circulation back, but for emotions — but worth it.

Yes, learning NVC can really help in hearing where the other person is coming from. It's also useful for expressing yourself in a way that's least likely to trigger the other person. All of this takes practice, of course.

I've taught it to over 3000 Google employees as a 20% project over the past 7 years. I've also developed a team of volunteer facilitators who help people practice in weekly workshops. We're happy to talk about the program and answer questions on Clubhouse (currently Sunday afternoons at 1pm PT):


Non violent communication seems so weird at first, and people think I never criticize... In the beginning. After a while, most of the people I work with openly recognize that they don't want to go back to the level of aggressiveness which is the norm in communication.

Big fan of nonviolent communication. It's a great framework for telling folks that you feel wronged by their behavior.

Be mindful of how far you go with this. If they have empathy they will feel bad. Some people absolutely will take advantage of this to control them.

Use the nonviolent communication model:

- recognize that anything we do is a strategy to meet one or more universal basic human needs which we do not control (e.g. safety, to matter, contribution, respect, play, sexual expression etc.)

- recognize that how we do things depends on our experience and conditioning. Many of the strategies we have are suboptimal, or harmful, or meet some needs at the expense of others

- acknowledge that we don’t control our condition, and neither do others. Genetic makeup, rest level, conditioning, life experience, trauma, attention level, mind chatter, current thoughts, blood sugar etc. all influence our reactions and our reactions come out of all of these. Free will is a myth - we don’t control our preferences.

- feelings are useful indicators of basic needs being met or not.

- learn to look for needs and the feelings present in the people around you. Start observing them in yourself.

- learn to weave in the needs and feelings when you communicate. NVC language is clunky, the way I teach it is to weave in the essence but stay closer to less formal language.

Not everything humans do is based on a need. We are somewhat random as well and have wants that aren’t backed by anything more than the want itself. The essentialism above reminds me of Robert California’s “all life is sex” motto.

The “need” thing is weird because it’s a rather vague term.

It would be better to say every conversation has some kind of purpose. The purpose could be as simple as wanting to have a conversation. The purpose determines how you approach the conversation.

Before anyone throws up their hands about overthinking things, that’s the point. It’s taking what’s an implicit, emotional process and making it an explicit, logical one. Over time, this way of thinking becomes automatic, turning it into an implicit, emotional process.

Think of nonviolent communication as retraining your social skills. The same as any martial art, you have to unlearn what you think you know and start with the basics.

For myself, I learned all of my social skills this way. I lack the emotional machinery required to learn social skills the implicit way. I’m constantly updating my rules to adjust for people I can’t predict.

> I’m constantly updating my rules to adjust for people I can’t predict.

But that is the implicit way. Everyone builds their psyche in response to the stimuli they encounter. There is value in building a system for yourself, but there is also danger in believing that the system is itself an answer. Build the system for yourself in the wrong way and you can end up with a severe psychosis. I think it’s better if we acknowledge that everyone is responsible for each other instead of peddling these self help ideas like “nonviolent communication” which are ultimately about selling books.

You're using your definition of 'need' to point out that it doesn't fit into what the parent has said.

You're right, your definition doesn't fit, his definition fits perfectly. Words have multiple meanings.

Well if you instead define a need as a want, then of course it makes sense, but that is because it’s tautological. “People do things because they want to do them.” That’s hardly an insight.

Indeed, in non-violent communication, a need and a want are more or less interchangeable.

The parent did an arguably poor job of expressing why non-violent communication is interesting.

It's value prop is in learning to think in terms of people expressing their needs/wants and recognizing 'you don't listen to me' as a complaint about a need/want not being met, not an attack or statement regarding your character.

The author of this thread has internalized being 'low in empathy', while non-violent communication would reject such labels as unhelpful and inaccurate, instead focusing on seeing if the wants/needs of a relationship can be improved and met through effective communication regarding what is actually desired, instead of blaming and attacking one another.

wants are wants because we imagine having the want fulfilled will ___________. what's your take on the blank?

Release dopamine. That’s not a need any more than buying a nice car is a need. It’s a want, and there is a difference. Needs are things required to survive; not buying a nice car will not kill you or anything like it.

A bit more exploration on this:

Example: If I don't have transport then I can't buy food / do things to survive. Its 50km to the nearest shop. Etc etc

Thoughts: I need transport but want a car, horse or bicycle. Perhaps I do need that car after all? A horse isn’t as useful when it rains. The bicycle won't fit four people.

Perhaps I do need a car. Obvious requirements just appeared involving weather, number of people, moving capacity etc.

But do I need the fancy car or will a less fancy car fulfill the requirements? There's the need vs want line as I see it.

psychologically i’m not convinced the wetware differentiates them. dopamine is a mechanism for motivating behavior, to increase survival outcomes. when it comes to empathy (understanding others) this is what’s key. status symbols are socially real and the social realm is just as much a threat as anything else in the environment. more, maybe!

Yes, and that’s part of the problem. The distinction happens in the psyche — do you need to burglarize that car, or do you want to? Do you need to make moves on that attractive coworker (which would constitute harassment), or do you want to? The instinct does not know, the prefrontal cortex does. We can’t allow ourselves to empathize with anything that just pays attention to the raw impulses, because that will send us back to the jungle.

A few more points because I’m seeing some confusion in the comments.

I’m speaking of Nonviolent communication the framework. It defines “needs”, “feelings”, “actions/strategies” as more concrete than the fuzzier definition each of us has intuitively.

Here’s the inventory of needs for example: https://www.cnvc.org/training/resource/needs-inventory

And a need does not involve a specific person taking a specific action. As in, I can meet my need for play/playfulness by sharing a joke, playing chess online, playing ultimate werewolf with friends etc. one need many strategies.

Also, “empathy” is a process which takes place that the person you hope to give empathy to feels felt by you.

This could be the result of a simple nod, or may need you to reflect their current needs and feelings so they know you have insight in their emotional world and into what’s really important.

It’s a framework focusing attention and exchange on what is universally similar between us and creates harmony and resonance.

Also, it gives up control. You cannot use it to influence behavior.

The “power” of non-violence is connection.

Are you familiar with the works of Paul Watzlawick? Especially https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/89200.Pragmatics_of_Huma... ?

I am asking because your first statement does not seem to adequately explain all the factors which are in play when we communicate.

Here is one tip: when someone tells you something, even it is a problem they are having, they don't want you propose a solution. What they want is to heard. If they really want you to suggest a solution to their problem, they will ask you directly: "Can you suggest what I should do about this?"

Example: "My manager really demands too much of me!" Good: "I am sorry to hear that." Bad: "Why don't you arrange a 1 on 1 and tell him that his demands are decreasing your productivity, which is obviously against his interests".

Only offer the second comment if you are asked directly!

Similar I read a line a year or so ago (can’t remember where) that really stuck with me:

All anyone ever really says is “I love you” or “help me”.

I try remember this whenever I am frustrated with what someone is saying to me. You can’t always help them, and sometimes it’s hard to love them, but you can reframe where they are coming at as being from them not about you, and with that resist arguing and feeling insulted or threatened.

This is definitely an important thing that more people, especially tech people, should keep in mind. However, this doesn't really apply in all situations, and I actually disagree about the example which you give.

When someone shares a problem with you, you may want to ask yourself two questions to evaluate whether you should give advice: 1. Can you suggest any action that the other person wouldn't already have taken if it were feasible? This isn't necessarily limited to you being a subject matter expert, it also includes situations where personal or interpersonal factors are at play: for example, when the person you're talking to is very shy or reluctant to formulate clear demands, empowering them to talk to their manager can be very beneficial. On the other hand, if they already are a person who feels very comfortable with meetings and social situations, they will likely already have considered the option and decided that it won't help, so you're adding nothing useful. 2. Is the problem at hand highly emotional, or is there something else suggesting that solving it right now is crass? For example, if your coworker told you that the family dog died, she's probably not looking for advice on funeral arrangements.

So, what it comes down to in the end is considering the context. Some people might be very happy to receive advice, and might be very thankful in the long run if you encourage them to talk to their manager about a career step they have been meaning to take. Even then, of course, compassion is never misplaced, and people will always be thankful if you show understanding for how the problem troubles them emotionally as well. If you want to encourage a shy person to have a conversation, you shouldn't pressure them. And so on.

I agree with your points, but the OP was specifically asking for tip on building empathy and becoming a better listener. Software types like me are problem solvers, and to us, problems exist to be solved. It took me many years (and my late Wife's great help) to understand that not every complaint was a request for a solution.

So I stick by my initial suggestion, until at least the person trying to learn listening skills feels that they are making progress.

Is that even true? I seriously can't relate. What is the point of "being heard"? And I don't think people would usually ask directly "can you suggest what I should do about this", they would consider it too demanding and perhaps they don't even know who could help them.

Well I cannot say whether or not it is true, but it certainly is for me. There is a lot of point to "being heard". Here is a short essay on giving advice that you may find interesting:


Here is a section from that page: ----

2. Give them a rant window.

Oftentimes when people ask for advice, what they really want is to rehash something they can’t get off their mind—something they’ve probably talked about repeatedly to lots of different people (maybe even anyone who’d listen).

The best way to be a friend is to enable both what they want to do and what they need to do. Want: tell the story repeatedly, as if they can change how they feel if they just talk about it enough. Need: work through it and let it go. Tell them you’re there to listen to everything they need to say. Once they’ve gotten all out, you’d love to help them move on.

I remember from Chris Voss Masterclass about Negotiation (which I unfortunately did not really finish), that he simply repeated what the other person said, with a questioning tone. Like if they say "I feel tired", he would say "you feel tired?" and so on. And I think he would sometimes interpret what the other person said to frame their personality for them (I think he called that "labelling"). Like say some terrorists takes hostages to pressure to USA to stop using oil, he could say "it sounds like you are really concerned about climate change and the well being of people" - completely made up and he would do it better, but that way, he could make that person think of themselves as a caring person who is worried about people rather than as a terrorist who is prepared to shoot hostages to get their way.

I can relate to that, sort of, I just don't think one should be supposed to fake feeling sorry or other emotions.

>I can relate to that, sort of, I just don't think one should be supposed to fake feeling sorry or other emotions.

No one is suggesting that. if it's fake, it's not going to work. You need to actively take an interest in what the other person is saying.

Look at what you're describing. It's an algorithm for appearing interested, without any of the actual interest. Your goal here is purely your appearance to the other person.

And it can work. But the follow-up question is: what is your goal?

If your goal is only to get what you want, there are much more effective ways than this sort of insincerity.

If your goal is to have a meaningful reaction with the other person, there is no substitute for mindful presence.

If you're not actually interested in what the other person is saying, examine your won mind for why that is, and decide whether you need to make a change.

But the most important thing is to forget about how you're appearing to the other person. By definition, it removes the authenticity from your interaction.

Now that can be problematic, for a number of reasons. I'm someone who's authentic self has been rejected by many people I've met in life. The temptation is to try to work on how I'm 'appearing' in order to avoid that rejection. But it doesn't work that way.

It turns out I needed to find more compatible people, instead of expecting to be compatible with everyone.

Voss' "radical empathy" is not faking emotions. It's a communication technique.

Choose to drop your preconceptions. Hear what the other person is really saying. Increase likelihood of a successful negotiation.

I've dealt with this, my family was very providing so if you hinted at some problem they'd try to solve it. But I might just be shooting the shit, if I complain about the weather I'm just observing the hassles of everyday life. I've had to work on not repeating this mistake

Reminds me of this line from Stallman's rider: https://github.com/ddol/rre-rms/blob/fb39b3d0bc29805519a57ca...

When you start proposing solutions you're essentially assuming lots of information. Then you enter into an argument to clarify those assumptions. Continue listening & maybe relate, it depends, there's no real script, but when you propose a problem there's an implicit implication that it's simple, when it probably isn't, the person has probably thought about it more than you have in the last ten seconds, so if it were so simple they'd've dealt with it already. Not to say never offer advice, but try get a read on whether advice is being asked for. Seek to increase information rather than make assertions

edit: full disclosure, I struggle with being empathetic, so ymmv etc

For many people, being head validates their experiences. It’s reassuring to be accepted by another person.

That is good advice though saying "I am sorry to hear that", seems a little shallow.

I think I solutionize cause I care or maybe I just like problem solving. Though coming up with an answer instantly belittles their problem.

What you're hitting on is the difference between sympathy and empathy. Both have a role in helping people.

"I'm sorry to hear that" = sympathy

"It sounds like you're exhausted by that." = empathy

Notice the noun in those sentences: first one is you, second one is them.

What matters is what we say after those, too. There's a big difference between, "It sounds like you're exhausted that. [Solution proposal]" and "It sounds like you're exhausted by that. [Pause, wait for them to expound]"

Proposing solutions can have a role, and is a form of caring. But only if we get permission for it first, and do so in a rubber-duck way (ex "what have you already tried to fix that?")

>> What matters is what we say after those, too. There's a big difference between, "It sounds like you're exhausted that. [Solution proposal]" and "It sounds like you're exhausted by that. [Pause, wait for them to expound]"

Really glad you brought up this point too. It comes off as extremely condescending if you don’t fully give someone space to express themselves. Simple follow up questions can be useful to help them develop their thoughts further, but firing back a solution instantly against something they may have put a great deal of thought into isn’t the right thing to do.

I like that you went with "It sounds like you're exhausted by that" instead of "Wow, that would make me exhausted too".

Because the 2nd one sets a totally different tone which might be seen as you wanting to stop talking about them and now it's your turn to guide the conversation and make it about you. It's also making a pretty big assumption about them being exhausted in which case you might drop the "too" to get rid of that assumption but you're still trying to sound like you're shifting things to be about you instead of them.

What if I don't think the person is "exhausted by that", but displays some other psychological issue, like blaming other people for their problems? Wouldn't that also be emphatic?

I give that example because it is common for people to bond via complaining about stuff (like their bosses), which I think is a bad habit that leads to negative outcomes.

And why are the people who just want to hear "I'm sorry" in the right, and not the people who want to find solutions? Why do the people who don't want solutions get to make the rules?

> And why are the people who just want to hear "I'm sorry" in the right, and not the people who want to find solutions? Why do the people who don't want solutions get to make the rules?

it's a set of tools, not a set of moral imperatives. worrying about which conversation style is "correct" is not a practical way to approach social interactions.

unless the person is a close friend or their behavior is harming you somehow, just keep the negative feedback to yourself. just tell them your best guess at what they want to hear and move on.

The main difference[1] between sympathy and empathy is that sympathy means actually sharing the emotional experience, whereas empathy merely means understanding someone is having an emotional experience. A sociopath devoid of sympathy could be highly empathetic and they often are, because it aids emotional manipulation.

For example something like "you clearly feel unappreciated, but I don't care so stop telling me about it" is empathetic. This leaves me wondering why exactly there is such an obviously submarined push for empathy in the software industry. Is the idea to get unsympathetic persons to learn enough empathy to convincingly feign sympathy? If so, what outcome is that dishonesty meant to achieve?

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/sympathy-empat...

Also, proposing solutions is distinct from suggesting ways to search for solutions. Confusing those explains most of the sentiment that solutions belittle someone.

Careful though - "It sounds like you're exhausted by that" can also come off as sounding quite patronising.

Absolutely - tone of voice matters a lot.

Perhaps “that sounds exhausting”, so that you are communicating that you too would be exhausted by that.

Would ” That sucks, have you tried doing something about it?” be good? As in, use the socratic method to help them come up with a solution.

The Socratic method is very good at problem solving, but when it comes to interpersonal communication it often comes across as aggressive and condescending. If you're going to use it, make sure it's in a purely problem-solving context, and that the other person is aware of what you're doing and has some degree of familiarity with you so that they don't assume the worst.

I am learning empathy myself and I think this would imply that they are being lazy and could come across as condescending. “That’s too bad, if I had that problem I would do something about it.”

I was just thinking about this I think you're right. Such small differences in phrasing can have a big difference.

I think a great response would be "That sucks, do you THINK if you spoke to them something would change?" Rather than "have you tried to speak to them?"

The first is a question, that will prompt them to think and then maybe act. The second is a question that is a little accusatory (you should have already spoken to them about it)

Conversation is hard!

"That sucks" may be intended as empathetic, but usually comes off as callous.

You might try the combination of [name the feeling] + [broad question], like:

"That sounds frustrating. What have you tried to solve that?"

or ismply stating the feeling and letting them move towards solution ideas after their feeling has been established, like:

"It sounds like this is taking a lot of energy from you."

(wait, let them reply)

"Can you tell me what you're working through to try to fix this?"

That may fit professional relationships, but close informal relationships demand more-intimate problem solving. That doesn't always mean suggesting obvious things, but thinking a problem through aloud can help.

Plus, friends don't always know exactly how they can help. Airing laments can collect solutions without having to catalog each others' resources and limitations or trespassing on power structures, like in a workplace.

(disclaimer?) I teach empathy, and maybe this helps:

1 - most people did not get what is called an "emotional education." What are emotions and how they guide our behaviour? What are habits and how they differ from intentional activities? What motivates human behaviour? What are biases and how they actually help us 98% of the time, etc.

2 - most people are exposed to pseudoscience and outright wrong information - jungian personality types, maslow's pyramid of needs, win-win negotiations, and so many other models only generate confusion and unproductive biases

And to work toward a solution:

1 - read up on psychology, there are many 101s good enough to get you a head start

2 - read on subjects as "active listening," jobs-to-be-done, non-violent communication, and "FBI behavioural change stairway"

And find a practice-buddy. I work pro-bono with a couple of fellow startup founders exactly on this skill, because our day-to-day work forces us most of the time in a problem-solution mentality. It is so much more precious to get and offer understanding, the non-judgemental type, and acceptance, without any intention of change.

Let me know if I can be of service here

I'd be interested in reading suggestions for criticism of Maslow or "win win".

The few criticisms I've found of Maslow seem to be that it's not 100% universal across individuals and cultures. This is true, but I think not much of a criticism of a model that's meant to be a rough guideline to a very complex topic. If Maslow is only 80% valid across all of humanity I think that's a pretty decent model, but if there are deeper criticisms I'd be interested to learn.

Similarly I'm not aware of any criticism of the concept of "win win" which, in my understanding, is just a definition of certain kinds of mutually beneficial situations. So I don't even have a frame for how it could be wrong :) Any reading advice on this subject would also be appreciated.

Happy to do so, here is the data I operate with:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is supposed to provide a prioritisation of needs - physical needs take priority over self-actualisation. If the model is wrong you would see many inversions. As in people prioritising self-actualisation to shelter - live in worse situation but get a better education. Therefore the pyramid does not provide a model that can reflect reality in an accurate way and we have inversions all over the place - from students going to better universities to people climbing dangerous summits.

There is a much better model - based in neuroscience, meaning that it has physiological proof to back it up. The Grawe consistency theory (neuropsychotherapy) has a much simpler approach:

3 needs we share with the whole living entities: Orientation/Control; Pleasure Maximisation/Pain Minimisation; Attachment; and one specific to humans Self-Enhancement (my work is, among others, focused on what causes this specific need, btw)

The needs are acted out through "behavioural schemas" - either approach or avoidance behaviours.

With this basic model you can empathise much better with anyone - when they do this, do they want to get something or get away from something? Does that give them more or less control, or maybe attachment? Nothing in Maslow's model can deliver this kind of understanding.

Win-Win is related to behavioural change, that is rooted in empathy. How can you change behaviours if you don't understand them? Win-Win (Harvard model) is competing with the FBI model of behavioural change (the stairway). While the former implicitly expects us to be rather similar (playing the role of businessmen) the latter does away with ego and focuses all efforts in understanding the overt and subconscious motives of the other part, and then presents a solution that is connected to that. And it works much better in practice, mainly because is meant to work when our motives can seem incompatible - try a win-win with a hostage-taker.

Anyway, remember that all models are wrong, but some of them are more useful. Part of this journey is to practice models and see what helps you get the results you want.

This is very interesting and helpful, thank you!

Can you suggest a good 101?

What helped me was to start with the assumption that the other person is just as intelligent as myself.

The worst is when you start making suggestions after listening to two sentences. If you assume that the other person is as intelligent as you are, then something you came up with after two minutes of listening is not useful -- they have probably considered this already.

It's different from your job, because at work you probably are a specialist and it's possible you know the solution after two sentences.

But for the problems we face in everyday life it's not so easy -- there usually are no easy solutions, and most people have a similar amount of experience.

> The worst is when you start making suggestions after listening to two sentences. If you assume that the other person is as intelligent as you are, then something you came up with after two minutes of listening is not useful -- they have probably considered this already.

I disagree. This has nothing to do with intelligence. It is all about connecting different domains of knowledge. You know and have experienced things they haven't.

Now you listen to their description of the problem, and transfer it to your domain of knowledge:

"Hey, this sounds exactly like an issue my friend Josh had a few weeks ago."

This is also why stories of the "king asking the farmer" or "CEO asking the cleaning lady" are so common --- it is all about the point of view.


Where I agree with you is "listen first, speak later". Don't interrupt until they have finished telling their story.

> You know and have experienced things they haven't.

They also know and have experienced things you haven't.

I'd say that listen their description of the problem is the first (and maybe easy) part. But then you don't have to provide your solution, but rather find it together with that person.

Treating the other person as intelligent as you helps sharing the problem solving part instead of doing it individually.

The unintelligent part is assuming you got enough context in 2 minutes to start making suggestions. You end up breaking discovery process for the other person.

It can help to frame it as questions and curiosity instead.

I like this advice, but the question for me becomes how do you assume every person is as intelligent?

No, I don't think I'm exceptional or smarter than everyone...but 15 seconds of scrolling through social media, watching daytime news, or even driving around makes it hard to assume there aren't a ton of idiots out there. So my default has kinda degraded to 'everyone is an idiot until proven otherwise', which is something I'd like not to feel.

People aren't idiots just because they sometimes do stupid things. Perfectly intelligent people frequently drive recklessly or post incendiary bullshit on hacker news. I don't think anyone is flawless, so I try not to judge people for a few flaws in their personality.

> ...the other person is just as intelligent as myself.

Similarly, I also recognize that there's a lot of stuff I just don't understand. Square peg, round hole. Not just unknown unknowns. Stuff that I will never truly grasp. So I need to swallow my pride and accept help from people who do get it.

Like a never ending treasure hunt adventure game. I just have to keep looking.

There's lots of specific advice posted already, much of which is good. I want to emphasize the seed crystal that ties it all together: try to put yourself in the shoes of the person you're talking to.

That's it. When talking to someone, constantly try to envision what it feels like to be them, to have the point of view(s) that they have, and what is driving them. Not just once or twice, but continuously, throughout the conversation.

Now- this is a lifelong skill. It takes constant practice, and you get better slowly over time. But we as humans are built for this sort of thing. From mirror neurons to brain structures dedicated to facial decoding, we have the innate hardware required to be successfully empathetic. It just takes practice. The hardest/most useful part is learning to understand other people's decision-making systems, which are going to be very different than your own. Withhold snap judgement, and try to find why their system works for them. You will almost inevitably learn something of value from the process.

Slightly off topic but I did some acting classes where that was the method taught - try to put yourself in their shoes, think their thoughts. It was surprising how much the teacher could actually pick up on what you were thinking. Humans have pretty sophisticated abilities there.

Avoid immature unempathic communications and behaviours: "Lots of trash answers. All of them in fact!"


1) The Golden Rule: Treat others as you'd yourself want to be treated. This is an ever-evolving loop of growth and learning throughout your life. You are never finished!

2) In job, service, family, nearly everywhere, people respond better to you when your behaviour and communications reflect the same shared goal. What might those goals be. As with #1 this is also a life-long quest.

3) As you gain better responses with people or get to know people better, you might consider asking for information, how to do stuff, help or start leading new initiatives.

At the same time, it is important to realize how the responsibility areas work within your organization, and avoid taking on work that you shouldn't take on!

> The Golden Rule: Treat others as you'd yourself want to be treated. This is an ever-evolving loop of growth and learning throughout your life. You are never finished!

I prefer the silver rule: Do not treat others in ways you do not want to be treated

Though neither really involves empathy as they’re based on your own feelings of a situation.

And note that the golden rule and its counterpart the silver rule are only a fall back for when you don't have enough information to apply the platinum rule: "Do unto others as they would want done to them"

You may not know what's best for other people!

Instead of the Golden Rule, think of it this way:

"Ask others how they want to be treated, and then treat them that way."

This is the right attitude but unfortunately I don't think it can be asked straight forward that way. The answer is best attained through listening and observing, but intentionally it's this principle balanced with the golden rule.

It doesn't help when people have no broader vision, plan or clue.

I engage people for shared understanding and work instead, but is counter to expectations.

You have to learn how to put yourself into other people's shoes. It sounds simple but it is incredibly difficult. You really have to step outside of your ego and try to view things through another person's eyes.

A key part is understanding who the person is. What experiences they've had. Truly what their life is. Some of this you can extrapolate from where they were born, how they were raised, their heritage, race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc. None of these defines an individual though, so you really have to navigate each person and truly want to learn what makes them tick.

Once you learn a person's wants and needs, then you can start to reflect that off of your own experiences and start to live in someone else's shoes.

It's easy to extrapolate people's motivations and beliefs, aka jump to conclusions, because you think you understand what you're hearing. Instead, take in and verify what they're saying without agreeing or disagreeing. When you say non-judgmentally "I'm hearing that you think/feel/experienced ...", you'll be amazed how often they tell you that you misunderstood. That's totally fine, because they'll correct you, and after a few rounds of that you'll really get where they're coming from and they'll know it, which is what empathy's all about. You don't need or want to take on their feelings and beliefs though, because integrity is an important part of empathy. So a respectful "that's really important to you"-like comment again makes them feel understood without in the least compromising your own principles. Once you and they both are certain you get where they're coming form, then the conversation can move on from there as appropriate.

> How did you develop your listening skill?

By being rational -- the following method works well for me. YMMV.

I reframe this problem as: Always assume the other person's limbic system has been activated; what will it take to calm their limbic system?

I do not have the exact source handy, but IIRC it can take any time from 15 minutes to 4 hours. From experience, I concluded that the only rational moves during that time are:

* Listening (the feeling of company and support)

* Pleasant sensory stimulations, for example:

- Scent: hot tea, fresh fruit

- Touch (only when appropriate): pat on the shoulder/arm, hand-holding, hugs

In contrary, during that time, any move that requires the other person's prefrontal cortex functions (planning, decision-making, abstract thinking, etc.) is almost always a wasted effort. (So don't make this type of irrational moves.)

Well....one way to level up quickly is to go through something terrible, especially something you didn't used to think much about before.

I cannot recommend this method, as it usually sucks, but it will often open your heart as well as a side effect.

It says a lot about you that you recognize that this is a skill that you need to work on and is worth working on.

It is completely normal that you see yourself being sympathetic by creating solutions, when people are asking you for empathy.

I'm writing a book aimed at developers on building empathy and applying it to business, called Deploying Empathy [1]. I'm writing it in public as a newsletter. I'm detailing specific actions you can take in conversations and customer interviews to build empathy.

One of the things about listening to people is that the more you do it, the more empathetic you become as a person. It takes practice, but I promise you will get there.

One of my own favorite books on this is Practical Empathy by Indi Young.

Self-empathy is also an important step, and if you find you don't have the tools to show empathy in conversations, there's a good chance this is a skill you weren't taught growing up. For that, therapy is invaluable.

[1] https://www.getrevue.co/profile/mjwhansen

Depending on your personal situation you might want to seek professional help. But here are some ideas to get you started:

Practice making eye contact especially when someone is opening up about their feelings. Then say things that show you know how they feel. Human brains can mirror feelings, like pain, from another humans [0]. So, to empathize with someone you need to get on their level emotionally and really feel how they are feeling.

[0] https://www.ted.com/talks/vilayanur_ramachandran_the_neurons...

>> Then say things that show you know how they feel.

Take care not to “me too, <personal anecdote>” as it can detract from the person seeking empathy.

Even though this reads a bit funny (install empathy.exe, please!) I think it's interesting you're even asking the question. That alone is significant, so you are already becoming more empathetic just by asking. You could easily have not asked at all.

I'm reminded of the 'wag more bark less' bumper stickers. That's a good tip. In being empathetic you're not doing anything specific, still less solving anything. You are projecting 'I'm listening I'm listening I'm here wag wag wag' like the bumper sticker. It stops being about what you're going to do, or what you're expected to do, and it's about telegraphing your willingness to perceive. You're wagging up a storm: you are indicating attention, responsiveness. In a sense it's like active waiting?

Even to ask the question signifies more responsiveness than 'I will make a solution as quickly as possible and then turn my back on you as soon as I can'.

It's also helpful to be honest with yourself about where you're at. I'm fundamentally a rather isolated, selfish person. I direct that towards generous open source software and helping to guide others (when it's convenient) and so I come off, in some contexts, as terribly empathetic.

But part of that is avoiding a selfish-failure-mode: I will make an effort to get as little as possible out of things and to look for what I'm putting into the situation, focus on that. It's focusing on the hacking side rather than the payment, and if I can be strategically generous enough it makes no sense to get mad at me for not giving MORE, and so I can interact on a level that 'reads' as extremely empathetic and kindly.

In fact, I have just managed my situation to where I am not giving more than I can comfortably provide… and since I'm not stressing out about it or gauging whether I'm being given back 'enough', it feels to others like I'm just hanging out being attentive and helpful. I'm just pursuing my own interests, but if you share them it's easy to think that I'm doing mighty nice things 'for you'.

Lack of pressure to get an interactional outcome plays a role, I think.

First, make sure this is really what you want and need.

It helps to be a Jungian personality type that has a strong focus on the feeling cognitive function, i.e. Fi/Fe. If that's not you, then empathy/sympathy will probably not come natural to you.

Also, I have personally found that a very refined culture of giving and receiving empathy is found in the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) "universe" created by Marshall Rosenberg.

A lot of people implement NVC wrong and it becomes a codeword to divert the results of the discussion to /dev/null. “I’d like that we solve X” => “So I hear X makes you feel really bad, right?” => “Yes exactly, what can we do about it” => “Can you tell me more about X?” and so on. In fact, I have not seen people who talk about NVC and are able to listen to my request (well listen they do, but “act upon” they don’t). It becomes a passive strategy to soothe the other while avoiding what he needs, and yet, still rephrase it perfectly.

To counter that, I use another strategy: Threat. I say “If you keep rephrasing like this, I will pour acid on the roots of a tree until it dies.” And they know I am capable of it.

At least it has the effect of snapping the person into stopping his NVC and actually telling me he/she has no intent on solving the issue which, as an Asperger, is much easier to deal with, because I can quit, deal with it another way - at least the cards are on the table. I can’t stand social games, and NVC became so misused by polite-agressive people that it became a social game.

I feel sorry for the people who invented NVC, it’s certainly not what they built it for.

Well, thank you for you honesty and openness. (How does that sound to ears that are averse to classical NVC?)

Kelly Bryson ("Don't be nice, be real") mentioned how he experienced Marshall Rosenberg being quite torn about teaching people to be overly empathic as a habit. Kelly recommends radical honesty as an antidote to that.

It’s cool, we’re online anyway. Yes, radical honesty is much easier to manage, because it doesn’t require trying to guess what the other is playing, and it doesn’t create unmerited expectations. I didn’t know Kelly Bryson, I’ll look into it.

Work on understanding your own emotions and you’ll be better at empathy. Two things that help me a lot are journaling my feelings and meditating.

>How did you develop your listening skill?

I'm not sure...I've always enjoyed listening to people's lives. Everybody's life is totally different than mine. Everybody's experiences are different than mine. By listening, I'm exposed to things in the world I would never be otherwise. Both good and bad...but still.

>How to be more empathetic?

It might seem cliché but, put yourself in their shoes. Imagine yourself going through the things they're telling you. Imagine how you'd feel. Not what you'd do to solve the problem, just how it would affect you emotionally as it happened.

>What common failure modes do you hit in your relationships as a low empathy person?

>How do you avoid them?

I don't know when to shut the fuck up. People don't always want to hear solutions, they don't want to hear about what could have been done or anything at all sometimes. Despite best intentions, sometimes the best thing you can do, to put it bluntly, is shut the fuck up. Resist the temptation to give advice or opinions, just listen and acknowledge. That part can be hard though.

I think a very important step is acknowledging that the person standing in front of you has the capacity to feel whatever negative or positive emotion that you can feel.

(That is regardless of whether you can quote research to the contrary. That is, statements that some people in some cases given some environment in a given moment or period could not pass some bar that some researcher has set.)

Your goal is to discover the person standing in front of you by allowing yourself to see them as a fully capable and imaginative human.

The other thing is to acknowledge that everyone is at some stage in their life. They have realized some things and others not. You want to know how they see the world and how they interpret what happens to them. Usually here you'll discover that they make some rigid assumptions about the world whenever they are mentioning some issue. And usually that issue has something to do with their relationship with other people or with the way that they view themselves.

Within all this is of course you as the listener. If something is making you uncomfortable in this process you should be very honest with yourself what that is. There are of course cases where people are very deeply entangled in their own world and I don't think in those cases it is beneficial for either of you to participate in the conversation.

To add to the previous point, I think realizing that there is a lot to be learned by allowing people to share the way they think with you. I think you would be surprised by what people are willing to tell you if you allow them and the kind of deep relationships you can form that way. It's also very surprising to realize that most issues that people have beneath a very shallow surface of circumstances are really almost the same. And they mostly have to do with the way that they talk to themselves about what happens to them.

Doubt if any of this is useful, but personally

> How did you develop your listening skill?

I've somehow developed the skill to detect that the other person isn't asking for a solution and most of the time I just blank out and think about other stuff (lol) and give vague agreeable comments ... while not empathetic, people keep coming back to talk about their problems for some reason, so I guess it works out?

> How to be more empathetic?

No idea.

> What common failure modes do you hit in your relationships as a low empathy person?

Keep forgetting things that should be "obviously" important - anniversaries / courtesies etc

> How do you avoid them?

I don't! If needed I apologize, explain the situation from my viewpoint to show that it's not deliberate and usually others grow used to it :)


Edit: Seriously though...

Try to be helpful by chosing to see problems as something you and other people are solving together and focus on the solution. For example, rather than saying or thinking "this is wrong" or "you are wrong", think "we could improve this by...".

This has to be genuine. People sometimes lecture to make themselves feel smart. I mean _actually_ be helpful.

MDMA in the right setting and right guidance will lead to baseline stress reducing, accessing and processing/healing past unhealed/unprocessed trauma - allowing one's ego mind guard to reduce and therefore body sensory to have a greater concentration of sensory reaching the brain/mind - allowing heart energy and logic influenced by greater sensory to add to logical pathways leading to greater empathy capability.

You need to find something interesting in what they are saying. Buy in, it takes practice, but good listeners continue the conversation, they don't change it to something more interesting, however, sometime you can focus on the particular item you find interesting that they are talking about. Often to stay engaged I direct questions about what the person is saying towards items I am more interested in hearing. This is selfish, but also its the best thing you can do if empathy is not your strong suit, you are speaking/listening on something that you are more likely to bring clarity or comfort to. This is because it is something you care about. Additionally, I have found with time more and more items have become fascinating to me, and focusing on one item lead to the ability (habit) to focus on other items I would have never been able to.

Lastly, generally find its not that I lack empathy (the ability), but when something is mundane, and I assume they are being pathetic, that I choose (whether subconscious or not) to ignore their pain. The solution comes back to finding something they are saying that you find interesting, however mundane or small, and it just gets easier from there. Direct focus, tempered by selfish interest, leads to the habit of indirect focus on varied interests.

Listening is an intense mental skill different from the physical capacity of hearing. Listening is multifaceted consisting of interpreting words, voice stress, posture, body language, and facial twitches. Truth occurs for a communicator when those facets are in agreement.

Listening well involves focus and intense concentration. Watch their body and face as they speak. Watch and listen for the smallest of changes.


To be more empathetic talk to people to learn what they are doing and why. Remember that not everybody will be fully honest. The dishonesty is likely not deliberate as the person may not be aware of their own mixed signals. That is called cognitive complexity and frequently results from internal conflict. Many people lie to themselves and do astonishingly poorly even at that.

Remember that empathy is not sympathy. A shared emotional experience is often an irrelevant distraction.


As for me I am a higher than average empathy person with very low sympathy. That is sometimes called low gives a shit. When people come to with challenges and failures I am evaluating them on multiple levels to look for stressors in order to properly respond with a guidance for improvement. What I won’t do is feel sad or sorry for them, which is them seeking comfort and agreement.

Often the best answer to conflict is something the audience doesn’t want to hear. You cannot control their receptiveness, but you can control the level of persuasion add additional stress for noncompliance.

I've gotten in the habit of asking if they want someone to just listen or if they want help finding solutions.

More often than not, people just want to know they've been heard.

As for building empathy, this is a tough question and I'm not really sure how to answer it. What makes you think you aren't empathetic already, outside of some rando internet test for empathy? I'm not sure I'd put a lot of stock in that kind of testing. Are you getting this type of feedback from loved ones?

Another thing that may help you in the long run and I can't recommend this enough, is a book called, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.

I just bought it:)

I am going to also drop this here, which is how I came into contact with the book.


1. Keep your mouth shut even when you have the urge to speak. Give people chance of speak their hearts. 2. You have to understand that everyone is coming from a different place, have different socio-economic conditions and childhood experiences. You have to respect this, and somewhere have to accept that most people are good at heart(beware of psychopaths) just that their life experience made them how they are. You will slowly start becoming sensitive to ppl.

As someone who sits at the opposite end (way to empathetic) I can share this:

I read once that bending your neck down (like when you look at your phone) lowers empathy. So to raise empathy practice looking up. This sounds like bs at first to me but when you think about it there's probably something to it as you look down at people beneath you and up at people above you. I find those towards the bottom of totem poles tend to be more empathetic (on average).

How has being way too empathetic affected your life?

It increases the attack surface for people to ask me to do things that aren't beneficial (or are even detrimental) to my life because they want help and I feel bad and sad sometimes if I don't help them. It's something I'm working to get better at.

edit: this is different from being intimidated into helping people. If someone threatens me I'm not going to help them. for example frequently people will come to me and ask for something I can do that they can't and I will want to help them and will then end up in a worse situation because of it.

Counterintuitive idea: learn to not be "curious about the person situation, while not really caring about the person".

Basically focus on listening and asking details while not really giving deep solutions but rather general advices.

This has 2 advantages:

- by not caring you will focus less on actual solutions and more on listening. You will learn a lot of funny stories if you do that with funny people

- people will still feel you care about them, while if you speak they will think you make it about you.

- your solutions would be useless anyway because What people REALLY want is ranting / blowing steam off / talking out loud to clarify their thinking, basically turning you into a "duck" (the bathing plastic duck you explain your problem which in turns makes it more clear to you and makes you fins the solution). Its actually a good thing for them. The bottom line is that they dont NEED your solutions.

If you do that, most people will say you are a "great person to talk" to. And they actually solve their problems faster that if you gave any solution ^^

Do you feel like you're unempathetic in person to person conversations or only online?

I think it's a lot easier to come off as unempathetic online, especially only written text because lots of online discussions are asynchronous, plus there's so many subtle modes of communication that get lost. It's also really easy to forget that the person you're replying to is an actual human being with their own set of internal issues and loops of thought processes.

I think to become a good listener the biggest thing is to really be interested in what the other person is talking about instead of waiting for your turn to talk or dismiss the conversation all together. Realistically most folks tend to want to talk more than listen but if you're genuinely interested then this doesn't become a thing where you're internally wishing they stop talking so you can talk. Instead you look forward to them talking even more.

Reading fiction builds empathy.

This may sound obvious and pedantic but by practicing it.

Getting yourself in someone's head is something you should return to casually, formally in various contexts and subtexts.

I like to use this one: "What part of their day is this?", which feels more relevant since I work across timezones now.

There's a simple technique that often helps: Let's say you're talking to someone and it's not going well, empathy-wise. (If you like, you can remember a situation from your past now to try this out with.) Allow your locus of perception to move from your physical point-of-view to the outside, so that you can see both yourself and the other person. Then (and this is the important bit) move around so that you are hovering above the other person's shoulder looking back at yourself. Now review (literally re-watch) the situation from the other person's (literal) POV. This will often present you with new and useful insight into your communications and relationship with others.

Just being quiet and not reacting in any way would probably already make you a better listener than most people. Yes, I am completely serious about it: most people just interrupt you to start telling their own story. (Forget even the advice about occassionally nodding and saying "uhm". Just listen; don't interrupt the speaker to show them how awesome is your listening.)

This skill is even more important when people get to sensitive emotional stuff. Not freaking out (this includes the body language; don't jump, don't pull away) is how you get people tell you things they have never told anyone else. You may learn that the world is much darker place than you assumed, though.

The next level is repeating back to people what they just told you, using slightly different words. Less is more, don't add your own interpretation or judgment. Just imagine that you have read a page from a book, and are trying to summarize it to someone else. (This is a simplistic description of Rogerian therapy.)

Whatever you hear during these moments, don't tell anyone, and don't use it in a later argument against the person who told you. Best if you forget it immediately.

This is often enough. Most people actually can solve their problems; they just need a permission to think about them. You provide that permisssion (a social approval) by listening without interrupting. By repeating their own words, you make them realize what they just said, which they often needed to hear more than whatever else you could tell them instead.

I am not saying that this is the best you can possibly do. Just that most people fail to even get here, and that the things they do instead are usually not as useful.

I suspect that people can never perfectly understand each other, but they have a huge emotional need to be perfectly understood regardless. You can cross a lot of this distance by listening, but when you get as far as you can, you can only provide an illusion of the rest. At the end, you are just a mirror that allows the other person to see themselves.

(Recommended reading: Nonviolent Communication; Games People Play.)

One possible approach to practice is skipping the “solutionizing” part of the listening-paraphrasing-solutionizing habit you mention. A good listener is able to understand the speaker and prioritizes understanding the speaker’s ideas over conveying their own.

Generally a good way to stay engaged is staying curious in what the other person is trying to communicate. Most people enjoy talking about their lives and will enjoy dominating the conversation. However if you need to fill a silence, a good personal story relating your experience to theirs is an effective way to demonstrate that 1) you’ve been listening diligently and 2) they’re not alone. Always nice to promote a sense of human togetherness!

> I run cycles of listening, paraphrasing and then solutionizing almost every day. This doesn't translate well in friendships & relationships where the other person just wants someone to listen.

One thing that greatly helped me was realizing that listening itself oftentimes is the solution, rather than thinking of problem-solving and listening as completely separate. (Paraphrasing can help the other person feel heard. If you're already paraphrasing, then maybe add a pause here to gauge how the other person has reacted to just being heard.)

Another was learning to ask whether the other person wanted advice, perspective, and/or feedback instead of automatically offering it.

There's always the Dale Carnegie stuff eg.

>You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you. (https://images.kw.com/docs/2/1/2/212345/1285134779158_htwfai... p65 pdf)

Dare say it's easier to read a self help book than execute on it. Maybe bear in mind that research show people skills are about the biggest differentiator in earning more and happiness. I'm not that great at it myself though.

Take some classes towards some kind of counseling certificate, specifically ones where you can observe experienced counselors. You'll see people with expert listening skills use them to help people.

That's what I did and it changed my perspective permanently. Before becoming an engineer I studied theology, which is actually a pretty technical discipline that requires insane amounts of reading (i.e. not people oriented). Afterwards, I took a counseling degree. Digging into people's lives, their struggles, and watching my professors help people really opened my eyes. It helped me see where I was being rigid and taught me some amazing listening skills.

Management advice that I learned the hard way –

Force yourself to talk less. If you're talking too much, just stop wherever you are or even say something like "hey actually let's hear what you have to say first."

Separate solutioning from listening + understanding. Try to listen and understand first, and then consciously separate that from any solutioning topic. It's like writing and reviewing code – you write first, then check things over, and then get a review which is done separately (and in that case, by a completely different person).

(another potential tactic – don't try to solution in friendships and relationships at all unless someone asks you to)

Something that has helped me to be more empathetic, even though it's not directly related to listening per se: service. Find a service project that you can do. It's fine if it's in line with your technical aptitude, but maybe just make it some manual labor. Go out and mow a widow's lawn or volunteer some hours at a food bank or something. I've found that as I've done service in my neighborhood, it's translated into me being a more aware of what people's needs and wants are. Plus, you'll come away feeling good having done a nice thing. :)

Am I the only one in the room not to understand the question?

Do you have friends, I mean about 4 or 5? If yes, I do not think you have a problem.

Have you ever been in a relationship for at about 2 years? You do not have a problem.

Is it difficult for you to stay in a relationship more than a few months? Admit you were not compatible. If you think you were compatible, reflect on your own mistakes and improve. Being in a relationship is something that can be practiced.

Without a long term goal with your loved one (such as kids but not limited to), do not expect a relationship to pass the 2 and 5 years crises.

And how about too empathic people?

They're never talked about, and seem like they don't exist... but they do, and usually lead miserable lifes due to their insistence in an excessive identification with others people problems.

They look bland, and most don't take them seriously, and sometimes are the laughing stock... and to be honest, I don't think society is to blame, as they don't fall near the middle of the normalcy curve... but they do have a problem.

Anyway, they're out of luck. Not in the fashionable side of the victim mentality of nowadays society.

Caring too much is a thing. Can be detrimental to self, systematically abused or even be an ego issue. Not sure the problematic aspect is empathy, rather sensitivity.

Apply your existing analysis skills. Build a mental model of a person as you would with a device. Your growing understanding of a device is a kind of empathy, enabling you to live with it in greater harmony. We organic devices are just more of the same. Given the low computational threshold for the emergence of complex behavior, heuristics are frequently conserved between software and wetware. Many people will respond positively to the same degree of attention and care you give to your code editor configuration.

I also do things this way. I have low empathy in that I do not literally feel sad when someone feels sad (or the feeling is less by several orders of magnitude). I build a mental model of the person based on past experiences and literature. Then I apply that and I attempt to predict the emotions they might feel in the situation. I believe this understanding is a form of empathy, but I think other people expect the other kind of empathy. I get feedback about whether my predictions are correct by making confirming statements that are either validated or denied. "That must've made you feel undervalued." "Did you feel disrespected in that situation?"

Have someone special die in your arms. I'm being serious...You will see all people (except the real nasty ones) as fragile and worthy of our patience and understanding.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can help.

The intellectual pursuit of empathy often results in individuals who know what empathy should look like and are good at faking it.

Real empathy requires you to recognize and process your emotions differently. This can be learned over time but usually not by directly attacking the problem.

This is just based on my own experiences.

But I can imagine this is frustrating for you and it seems like you’re already doing the hard work of recognizing there’s an issue. Good luck to you.

There's a really good book written by Chade-Meng Tan who was a software engineer at Google called "Search Inside Yourself". It includes quite a lot of content on empathy - e.g. that apparently the same "hardware" is used in the brain for both empathy & self-awareness, so developing self-awareness through exercises like mindfulness is likely to boost empathy as well.

Well, I hesitate to insert a very contrary opinion into an empathy-fest, but here it is. And I have to unashamedly say it especially is aimed at people who want to be something more than they are, or aren't satisfied with life simply as it is.

Sometimes, having too much empathy means that you tolerate stupidity, low performance, laziness, and hold yourself back from your potential.

We all take certain cues from our surroundings, and those who surround us. And it's inevitable that if you're in a mediocre environment, some of that rubs off on you over time. E.g. people who are dragging you down in terms of performance, ideas, not being "on it" and not at the top of their game, if they ever were. You start forgetting that you're better than this.

Given enough explanation, anything becomes reasonable. Being too empathetic to people sometimes means that you have to put up with excuses of all the bullshit that goes on in average people's lives, and how poorly people manage their own thoughts, affairs, and actions. Your coworker is dealing with relationship issues, can't deal with stress, unable to think clearly, blah blah blah.

Most of us want, at some level, to see what's on the next level, get a taste of being a rock star, a CEO, something special? Not just to be an empathetic person who understands why everyone has issues and has to put up with it?

Sometimes, not having empathy is necessary to make others perform, do what they don't want to do, and achieve beyond the every day. Work is about doing things you don't want to do. If everything is empathetic, why even bother doing things you don't want to do?

Now, the clever amongst us will learn how to use empathy as a tool to get people to feel you relate to them, and motivate them to do their shit. Or otherwise, at least recognize that you're not surrounded by geniuses, and change your surroundings to where you're challenged and maybe the one underperforming. Of course, your ability to use these factors/skills depends on whether you're stuck with a group of colleagues or have freedom to move around (i.e. how much you can burn bridges/create new ones or are stuck with people).

But overall, use some amount of caution with empathy. It's liberal and polite to be empathetic. But too much empathy and you can sometimes be dragged into a pit of mediocrity yourself.

Try mirroring.

Don't offer anything new, just mirror their attitude and feelings. If they say their day sucked, you go "that sucks". Then you encourage sharing by asking for more details, and you join them in whatever attitude they have about the things they share.

That's it. Fake it till you become it. If you're sincere, it works from the start.

How to be more empathetic ?

Trying play Empathy Game on LG. It is of course not real empathy, because you play it with strange people. With friend and family try some party board game.


Hold babies. Hold puppies. Hold kittens. Hold baby chicks. Hold lambs. Hold calves.

30 minutes per day. Every day. Your empathy will skyrocket.

By learning about EQ. I recommend picking up the book “Emotional Intelligence 2.0,” taking the assessment, read it, and focus on areas you can improve. Then revisit and practice the tips over the next 3 months (their timeline) and reassess. It is ongoing after that but it is a good starting point with actionable tips.

re: "I rate lowly on empathy scoring tests on the Internet"

I think the key is to ask questions from a caring perspective. Don't disguise advice as a question, but focus on helping the other person get clarity on their situation. It's symptom elicitation and constraint identification. Don't diagnose and don't prescribe, just help them get clarity.

See https://www.skmurphy.com/blog/2015/09/25/asking-questions-fr... and https://www.skmurphy.com/blog/2015/07/05/a-serious-conversat...

1. Stop thinking about yourself, and putting yourself at the first place of every thought and need.

2. Practice introspection. Observe what trigger your low empathy behaviour. (Meditation will help you with this.)

3. Consider every person you will talk with as a master that can teach you something new. Curiosity and open-mindness will do the rest.

My relationships suffered from frequent disagreements caused by miscommunication. The book Nonviolent Communication by Marshal Rosenberg taught me some super-useful techniques that eliminate most disagreements. My life drastically improved after reading and applying the NVC techniques.

Try adopting an animal from a local shelter.

Anecdotally, for myself and others I've observed, it's a very effective way to consistently build empathy in one's self.

Prison systems in Nordic countries often combine labor with farm animal care to increase productivity and develop empathy at the same time.

A major epiphany for me was realizing that when someone is talking about their problems they don’t necessarily want / need to hear solutions.

When a solution pops don’t say it until the person stops talking or asks « what would you do ». It worked for me well to improve my listening skills.

I'm not a naturally empathetic person, but people often rate me highly these days. All of my tricks come from Carl Rogers' book "Active Listening", where he teaches you the importance of making the other person feel understood.

The technique basically boils down to repeating back your understanding of the situation to the person, and attempting to identify what they must be feeling.

If you're like me, this won't come naturally. It will feel fake, and you'll be worried that the other person will see right through you and accuse you of trying to therapize them. In my experience, this doesn't happen. If you keep the tone conversational and curious, the other person will be none the wiser, and will be happy that someone is finally trying to understand them.

An example might be if someone says to you "ugh, they keep giving me all the work to do while everyone else sits around". A non-empathetic response might be something like "maybe you could try delegating some of your work to the others", which isn't really an effort to understand the situation better, and more than likely will make the other person defensive.

To practice active listening, the conversation could instead go something like:

B: "Damn, that sounds frustrating. You must be pretty annoyed at the others for getting a free ride"

A: "No, I mean, it's not even their fault. I think I did this to myself by trying so hard to get my work done quickly when I started here".

B: "Oh, right. So they've identified you as the competent one, and now they feel like they can give you the most work to do since you can handle it?"

A: "That's right."

B: "Yeah, that sounds like a tough spot to be in. It's hard to go back to a lesser workload once people think you can handle a lot."

A: "Exactly."

What you're looking for is the person to say some version of "exactly" to confirm that you've got it right. If you can get to "exactly", you'll have successfully empathized with the other person.

Test it out one day. Make a deal with yourself to have an entire conversation where you don't suggest solutions, and only try to get a solid understanding of the other person's situation and their emotional state. You can always satisfy the solutionizing part of your brain by going on HN and sending some comments into the void.

The advice here is fairly practical but I think doesn't do much to encompass the premise of the question: which is how to you become more empathetic?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. This is a complex skill because it requires 1) understanding and 2) the ability to share and engage with someone else's feelings.

To be more empathetic you need to understand why the person feels the way they do and this is often done through either shared experiences or insight into those feelings.

Reading can be a great way to become more empathetic as it exposes you to the thought patterns of another individual in the experience they choose to write about. So reading various books about people's experiences can give you a broader perspective about peoples reactions, feelings, and thoughts to events that have occurred in their lives. There's really no shortcut when it comes to reading, the best advice is to read alot about various different things from the first hand perspective of others.

Reading is just one way to understand people's shared experiences actually talking to a diverse set of people about their lives is another way to build this skill. As engineers we're generally not good at this but an example would be going to a bar asking about someone's life and just letting them speak as you listen. I'll also add its an amazing way to make friends and people are infinitely complex and seemingly "average" lives are filled with wonderful insights, experiences, and things to learn from.

The second part is being able to share and engage, this requires an understanding of your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. If you lack the ability to understand how your feeling trying to understand someone else's feelings is generally moot.

If you have trouble engaging with your thought patterns or feelings CBT can be helpful as well as mindfulness.

When your able to understand your own emotions you'll more easily be able to understand other people's experiences as you'll more easily shift perspective of what your reaction would be to an experience someone else is having or had.

Empathy is a hard skill but extremely important for intrapersonal relationships and ultimately success and it is a skill which can wax and wane based on active practice. An example why empathy is important is a founder who is more empathetic will be able to understand customer pain points more accurately, creating a better product which more purposefully solves a problem.

You said, “I run cycles of listening, paraphrasing and then solutionizing almost every day.”

Sounds like you’ve got a good foundation. Just cut out the solutionizing step, replace it with sincere questions and affirming statements, and you’ll be golden!

Date an envious depressed person. This will make you empathetic very quickly.

Jokes aside, to feel empathy without ever having suffered greatly is hard/impossible. Instead you might be able to express sympathy, which is better anyways.

My partner gave a talk related to this topic which you may find helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJIgw2J9ok0

I can’t give you actionable advice since I’m struggling with this (and a recent autism diagnosis) myself. But it might be interesting to research the empathising/systemising theory.

I really enjoyed reading Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind. It is more for the professional setting but I think a lot of it is applicable to personal life as well.

Why is empathy important? I would love to be able to help people without feeling overwhelmed with their issues. Can one just learn to listen and respond accordingly?

Don’t ignore the older wisdom traditions on this question, too. There won’t be a jolting answer in this thread, you may have to work over time for breakthroughs.

I think you need to be attuned to your own emotional state before you can perceive and respond to the emotions of others.

State the basics about the person. It can often help to give context about who they are in the time they're in.

Study people you believe have empathy, and imitate them. Then others will think you have it too.

./configure; make; make install on the unpacked empathy tarball you just downloaded

Active listening and don't offer advice or try to solve the problem.

empathy is the TCP handshake of understanding

Me ---------------- My feelings -------------- > You

Me ------------- I understand? -------------- :You

Me <------------- You understand -------------- You

I think the most important part in developing empathy is adopting another person's perspective. By this, I mean not only "stepping into their shoes" (while keeping your own mindset) but actually _thinking_ as they do. This is very hard. It helps to be generous - ie, to assume the best about the person and that they are acting with the best intentions.

But the best way to "get it" is to experience it personally. You can't really understand how a Trump supporter, a "nice guy", a single mother of 3 kids or an addict think unless you've actually been one. I find that that kind of personal experience goes a long way towards developing compassion to your fellow man.


What an empathetic and thoughtful comment. I completely sympathize with your point.

> How did you develop your listening skill?

This is a good question, and something I am personally probably still struggling with. I feel like the greatest progress I have made on this is focusing more on listening, and less on conversing or having answers. People generally appreciate if you take their concerns seriously, but are easily offended if you offer obvious advice that brushes their concerns aside.

> How to be more empathetic?

According to some research [1], reading literary fiction has a greatly positive impact on empathy and the capacity to process emotions. I have even heard the argument that the boom in novel production in 18th century England created a cultural shift, as the increased capacity for empathy made people more morally conscious on a variety of issues.

As I believe that giving a somewhat empirically grounded answer is very much in line with the spirit of this forum, I shall therefore suggest everyone to read more novels.

> What common failure modes do you hit in your relationships as a low empathy person?

I don't think that having low empathy has ever been a "failure mode" to me -- but regardless, I feel like I have emotionally matured in a way that I wouldn't describe myself as "low empathy" anymore. It's certainly an issue when trying to pick up girls, though. (Wouldn't it be so nice if you just knew people's intentions?)

> How do you avoid them?

The crucial thing is that when you have a conversation, you should try to be mindful of what the other person is looking for, even on an emotional and possibly unconscious level, and try to accomodate that first and foremost. This always involves some guesswork, but it is worth it to try and make an effort. As noted elsewhere in this thread, often people just want to talk for support and are not looking to solve a problem. This can cause some friction with math-sy people, who often have a strong urge to start running solutionizing when encountering an unbalanced equation.

Taking my own advice here, I also want to tell you, OP, that it's not really an issue to not be great at those things. This is by no means limited to technical people, and I actually believe that most people struggle with this sometimes: there's the marketing manager who will stop you at the water cooler and talk at you for 10 minutes about the amazing new project she's doing, with you awkwardly trying to exit the conversation; and there's the menial worker who feels awkward around "smart" people, often avoiding them altogether, as if he felt they could bite him; and so on. In the end, we're all just human, and the important thing is that we're here to learn to respect and understand each other. You seem to be on that journey, and that is the important part.

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-rea...

I'll give it a shot, because I consider myself a relatively empathetic person:

> 1. How did you develop your listening skill?

In my mind, there are at least two different types of listening that I can think of. Let's call them "surveying" and "socialising":

a) When you're "surveying", you're taking in information to create some kind of output in the end. This could be listening to a co-worker describe a problem, or it could be listening to a friend asking for relationship advice. What's normally the most important here is to indicate that you are in fact listening, and resist the urge (if you have it) to break in during the explanation, unless you need clarification. At the end, try to summarize what you've understood, not just to indicate that you actually listened but also to clear up any misunderstandings.

b) When you're socializing, what can lead to conflict is if you approach it like you're doing "a": this took me years to realize in romantic relationships, that a lot of complaining is not someone asking for a solution. When meeting people in general that's pretty obvious, people like whining about things just to agree on things that suck so you can bond over it, but for some reason I always assumed that in more intimate environments you'd probably bring it up to get some advice. Well, that's not true. So if the person is just airing grievances, saying "that sucks" and doing some whining on your own that's tangentially related might seem like a really bad solution, and it is, but noone is asking for a solution, so don't offer one.

> 2. How to be more empathetic?

Having empathy is quite simply the capacity to relate to another persons feelings. That doesn't just mean "how would I feel", it also means "how does this other person differ from me, and how would I feel in their situation", which is something completely different. Other people will frequently feel insecure, just like I'm sure you do, and it's not always we consider that.

It's also important to point out that it's impossible to care about everybody's problems, but the important part is not genuinely caring, but dealing with the situation in a way that is socially acceptable. You know, like walking away while someone is talking about something that's really weighing on them might make sense from the perspective that you don't honestly care, it doesn't make sense from the perspective that you don't want this person to feel rejected and meaningless.

Like all skills, empathy takes practice if you're not used to it. Maybe you're from a home where talking about feelings wasn't encouraged, regardless of why you feel you need to be "more" empathetic, don't be too hard on yourself. Honesty goes a long way, and if you feel like you don't know how to act in a situation, it's a million times better to be honest and open about how you feel than to fake it.

Most of the time, showing empathy is just acknowledging that you're seeing another person and what they're going through. 15 minutes of heartwrenching details about a breakup doesn't need a 15 minute response, it's well enough to just acknowledge that the whole situation really sucks and you're there if they want to talk about it some more. A lot of problems don't have solutions, and empathy is meeting someone in that uncertainty.

> 1. What common failure modes do you hit in your relationships as a low empathy person?

I used to be a pretty low empathy person, but I think honest and open communication goes a long way to rectify that in the long term. As long as you're open about your weaknesses, people at least know what to expect and what to tell you. If you tell someone that you need them to be extra clear on what they mean or expect, and that your "low empathy" behavior isn't meant to cause offense, at least people close to you will probably feel more comfortable in correcting it. If you don't, most likely nobody will say anything, because adults normally aren't in the habit of raising eachother.

> 2. How do you avoid them?

If you want to avoid a behavior that you consider unwanted, that's going to be hard if you yourself can't identify them when they happen. So I would say that a good first step is probably acknowledging the problem, and trying to identify it when it happens. When it does, despite what you have in your mind, try acting in another way and see if it gets you a better result. If you can't come up with anything and you need help, ask for help. There is no shame in being open about what you don't know and what you're not good at, that's the first step to self improvement.

One quote on empathy that has stuck with me is that we "always judge others by their actions, but ourselves by our intentions". We tend to be less forgiving to others, and one way out of that may be to try to find the underlying intention rather than what that person did. Empathy is, after all, the ability to envision yourself in another persons position. In the long run, I think this leads to a lot less conflict as well.

Listening requires allowing your conversation partner to fill the silence with their thoughts rather than filling it with yours. So at the risk of pointing out the obvious, to improve your listening skill try talking less.

In the middle of a technical explanation, sometimes people will pause and say something like "Is this making sense so far?" The question makes it fairly clear that the explanation isn't finished and that they have more to say. The same pause to confirm that the other person is engaged and understands occurs in personal discussions, but it might not be marked with an explicit question. So by talking less, you allow the other person to finish what they're saying and drive the conversation where they want it to go.

For example, consider the following variations of a hypothetical conversation -

Version 1

>A: "My coworker keeps interrupting me to ask questions that could easily be answered by reading the documentation. They've literally been messaging me at least once an hour."

>B: "Wow, that sounds so annoying!"

>A: "Yeah, it is. This morning I finally couldn't take it anymore and muted DMs from them so I could get some work done in peace. It was such a nice change."

Version 2

>A: "My coworker keeps interrupting me to ask questions that could easily be answered by reading the documentation. They've literally been messaging me at least once an hour."

>A's mom: "It's great that they trust you as a reliable source of information. I hope your boss recognizes what an asset you are!"

>A: "Uh... yeah, thanks mom. Anyway, how's your vegetable garden coming along?"

Version 3

>A: "My coworker keeps interrupting me to ask questions that could easily be answered by reading the documentation. They've literally been messaging me at least once an hour."

>C: "Wow, that sounds so annoying! Have you talked to them about how disruptive it is? If that doesn't work, you should talk to your boss. You don't want to be blamed if their interruptions end up delaying your work."

>A: "Fortunately it hasn't been that bad. I don't want to turn it into a bigger issue than it actually is by going to my boss about it."

Really the story that A wanted to tell was about muting the DMs, the initial pause just served to make sure it was the right audience to tell the story to (and that the audience was listening and not distracted by something else). In version 1, B conveyed that they understood and so A was able to finish telling the story. Version 2 demonstrates why A is pausing - A's mom wasn't the right audience, so better to just change the subject. In version 3, after A pauses C fills the silence with their own thoughts about the situation, which takes the conversation in a different direction than A had intended. C meant well, but if they had instead created silence (by not continuing to talk) after expressing understanding, they could have listened to A fill that silence with the story that A had hoped to tell.

If it's just friendships and relationships, then put aside strategies and models.

Just ask.

"I'm here for you and I want to help; do you want listening, or fixing right now?"

The above is not meant as a script, but the idea you need to get across. If you're not feeling you can delicately explain such things, always start with your own desire to be clear, and usually you will have leeway with someone after you show that you want to help, you maybe just aren't sure how to best do it.

Empathy is a trained skill and also a factor of familiarity, and until you know a person or really learn to understand the context of different cues someone provides, you're at a loss. No one is a mind reader, and even the best therapists/counselors ask very direct questions.

For listening, as much of a tautology as this may seem, you have to actually want to listen to get better at listening. If you don't have the motivation or want, then empathy isn't going to improve. Find whatever reason you need to justify your want to listen and then just remember what the person is looking for, and expressing your desires.

Review how you listen; some people are good at just absorbing information and agreeing, others try to show they're invested by telling their own stories that relate, there are many ways of doing this. Understand your usual/default way and review how it makes you feel when you do this: there is a personal gain you get from such communications, so what is it? Then, see how others have responded or understand it. Do they see it as you trying to "steal" the conversation? As something unrelated? As a point of comfort?

Watch how a person you care about listens to you; likely there's a correlation to how they like to be listened to.

Remember that your feelings will generally guide how you respond to such situations, and you need to keep yourself level on a few subjects:

- You cannot fix some problems, so look to comfort not to fix (e.g., nothing you can do will make a loved one dying any better for someone)

- You might not be able to provide what someone needs at a specific time. This is not a fault or flaw of you, it's just their need differs than your offer. This is a neutral thing

- Low Empathy and even some features classifiable under the DSM may be explanations for why you struggle to listen that people accept, but it won't make them feel better necessarily unless you make an effort to still work past it. There may be a limit you have to such interactions, but if you "give up" with your limitations, it's usually interpreted as giving up on the person also. This doesn't mean you need to bend-over-backwards struggling, but the efforts you do make to overcome these limits will never be forgotten.

Most communication failures with those who struggle with empathy/listening are just communication issues (broooooad generalization of course). Both external communication and your own internal. Take the time to understand yourself first and what you are missing/not getting, and try to find a way to articulate to yourself what your needs are at a given time. If you can't know, then there's no way someone else can except by guessing. And if you cannot understand your needs in a situation like this, it's hard to even begin to understand what others might need.

read fiction

Get some pets.

I struggled with this my whole life, until a diagnosis of autistic personality at the age of 34. Therapy helps you understand people because you can ask the therapist for the behaviours people expect from others. It's called masking.

Go to Reddit, create an account. Join r/relationships.

Give advice to people with the goal of getting to 10,000 karma.

Then you will know what to write, which will make it easier to say the correct thing when it happens in person.

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