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Want to Get Along Better with Others? Develop Empathy

Have you ever asked yourself: What is wrong with people today?! Do people just seem a bit meaner? A bit more on edge? Little provocations or inconveniences seem to escalate quickly and elicit strong reactions disproportionate to the actual (or perceived) transgression. We read and hear stories about people resorting to physical violence over such things as cutting in line at the grocery store, angling over a parking space, and even disagreeing a referee’s call at a child’s soccer game.

Especially alarming is what we see on news stations. Loud and brash television personalities are more popular and prevalent compared to more objective and analytical programs. While this may be acceptable and even desired at an entertainment level, we need to recognize that confrontational and antagonistic styles of dialogue do not work in real relationships.

Many lament the fact that, as a society, we can’t seem to have civil discourse anymore. Hyperbolic, definitive, and provocative statements get the most attention. The lack of compassion for others is often cheered while discernment, even-temperedness, and understanding are perceived as weaknesses.

It is likely that you have observed this in your own relationships. Perhaps, you can acknowledge that you were once the one to pass judgment and express hostility. How does this happen? How can seemingly intelligent people, who can otherwise evaluate and make good decisions in other situations, all of a sudden become impatient, impulsive, and downright mean in interpersonal situations?

The reason this occurs is because we forget that communication within relationships requires critical thinking. For some reason, we have a tendency to leave critical thinking at the door when talking to people, and we can become somewhat self-centered…even entitled. We may allow ourselves to “shoot from the hip” more often in relationships, with little regard for any damage we may inflict. We may even harbor the belief that our viewpoints are superior to others. If we’re completely honest, we may even simply believe that other people do not have a valid point of view.

From strangers to acquaintances to married partners, there is a big problem when we are dismissive of their point of view. When we don’t apply critical thinking to relational communication, we likely make a negative assumption about the other person. This leads to two potential negative outcomes. First, if we publicly make known our negative assumption to that person, s/he reacts defensively (why wouldn’t they), and we find ourselves in an argument. If we keep the negative assumption to ourselves, we may make ill-informed decisions due to our own biases because we have not checked them out.

Simply put, when we do not demonstrate critical thinking in relationship communication, we are acting in a self-centered and ignorant way. At its worse, lack of critical thinking in relationships is a sign of narcissism or psychopathy. These are people who literally cannot understand things from someone else’s perspective. While the vast majority of us do not fit these categories of personality, when we make negative assumptions about someone without critical thinking, we are lacking in empathy.

What is Empathy?

Empathy can best be understood as having two components. First, it is the belief that people, as human beings, have value. Second, it includes the skills to understand how they feel based on their point of view (not ours). Note that empathy does not mean that you agree. Empathy is about respect (we are all human beings) and understanding (each human being has experiences that shape their point of view).

To figure out how we can build our empathy, let’s first understand what it is based upon: critical thinking.

Critical Thinking: The Building Block for Empathy

Critical thinking, broadly defined, is the objective analysis of an issue for the purpose of forming a perspective. It includes two components: a set of knowledge and beliefs (worldview) as well as a process for analyzing situations. Those who practice critical thinking at a high level are aware of the limits of their own perspectives (the limits of their knowledge and worldview) and the danger of unchecked egocentricity. Therefore, they develop a system of analysis that guides their thinking and reasoning.

An example of this system is the scientific method. As a method of investigation and discovery, it is intended to arrive at an answer through a careful and methodical process. As such, in scientific discovery, the lack of a significant finding is just as important as the finding of a significant finding. “Ruling out” certain hypotheses helps to narrow down available potential answers. Staying true to this method allows for protection against making rash decisions.

Inherent in the understanding of critical thinking is that individuals have a finite knowledge set. This is natural as no one can possibly have all the information as well as have understanding of all the differing perspectives and iterations of knowledge. It implies that knowledge and understanding is contextual – a person’s experiences have a tremendous impact on his/her assessment and subsequent conclusions about an issue or topic. Our knowledge and understanding is honed through years of both direct and indirect reflection and meaning-making.

Applying Empathy

When it comes to the relational settings, the vast majority of time, we are not privy to the internal processes of reflection within others. Instead, what we see is their outward expression of it, such as through a verbal comment or a post on social media. Without any (or little) understanding of the person or their context, we take what they say or post at face value. If it happens to conflict with our own point of view, we have a tendency to make an immediate judgment not only about the words but also about that person. We unfairly judge others.

What if we were to apply the principles of critical thinking to these social and relational situations? The research shows that empathy can be a learned behavior. The lack of empathy, in worst-cased scenarios, is often called callousness. This emotional disregard for others’ perspective and its outward expression always leads to defensiveness in the other person.

Have you ever noticed how angry or defensive you get when your perspective is rejected? It’s one thing to know that someone disagrees with you but respects your point of view. However, when our perspective is outright rejected, what is at stake is not just our perspective, but also our entire worldview. The essence of who we are is being challenged or rejected. This is extremely threatening at a psychological level and we will automatically defend it at all costs.

The problem with relational communication is not that some one disagrees – we all have a right to our opinion. It’s the manner in which we disagree. When someone does so without empathy, they are essentially doing so without critical thinking. They are making snap judgments without any evaluation of evidence, which overwhelmingly leads to a negative response from the other person.

Being empathic can be addressed with a few steps that coalesce around two concepts, your own internal preparation and learning a set of behavioral skills.

Internal Preparation: The goal is to change or add to your worldview more inclusive and less isolated thoughts about others.

  1. Remind yourself that others have experiences that shape their perspective. They have a right to their perspective – their perspective is their reality – to deny its existence it is to reject them

  2. We do not have to agree with others.In many situations, agreement is not the end goal nor should it be. But understanding should be.

  3. What is the “story” (assumption) you have about the person and the situation. We simply do not know everything the other is thinking, and we need to find out as much as we can.

  4. Build your tolerance of the negative feelings that come with realizing you have differences with others. If we feel strongly about something, we will naturally react when others have differing perspectives. Normalize this feeling; you do not need to act upon it.

  5. Ask yourself: are you really interested in having a discussion to understand or are you just wanting to push your point of view? Either way is okay (there are times where we just want to push our point of view). Knowing your intentions allows you to know your limits and when to stop pushing. However, too many times we lie to ourselves by thinking we are wanting to understand but we are really just wanting to make the other person feel stupid.

Behavioral Steps: This is the process you engage in to better understand others.

  1. Ask objective, open, non-leading questions.

  2. Look for the fear or concern. This is the reason for their perspective. What, in their life, is being threatened and is influencing their perspective or opinion.

  3. Indicate that you can see, given their background, the connection with their perspective. This is called validation. Validation is not agreement, it’s a verbal sign, usually in the form of a summary, that you understand where they are coming from.

  4. Reduce/eliminate behaviors that demonstrate disgust, condescension, and superiority.


Demonstrating empathy is a vital and necessary relational skill. Contrary to popular belief, empathy is not agreement with others. It is simply being able to recognize that other people are human and that they have experiences that have shaped their perspective. Being able to demonstrate empathy indicates understanding, which can serve to de-escalate volatile situations quickly. This is especially important because when our emotions get the best of us, we are more likely to engage in automatic defensive communication behaviors that increase threat in others. The better you are at regulating your own emotions (internal preparation), the better you are at developing a system for relational communication (behavioral steps), the better you are in navigating conversations with different viewpoints. While you cannot control other people’s behavior, you do have power in setting conditions for more favorable discourse.

While we may not all be able to ‘get along’ with everyone in terms of being friends, we are able to skillfully navigate dialogue to increase understanding and reduce negative relational outcomes.

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