The problem is not being convinced of our need for more empathy. Rather we need help in learning how to be more empathetic. Here are seven practical ways you and I can grow in empathy for others.
How can you and I better develop empathy?
1) Pray for others & pray for empathy
When we get in the habit of praying for others, our eyes are opened to their needs and desires. We see their struggles and we’re more sensitive to the things in life that lead to stress or cause struggles. Pray for the Lord to open your eyes to the needs of others in your life so that you can better understand and care for them.
2) Ask questions
You’ll never really understand others and know how to empathize best with them unless you ask them questions. We assume others are just like us—we think others have the same needs and desires, hopes and dreams, and fears and challenges. Instead of making assumptions, why not ask others about their lives?
I’m currently providing some leadership in our church with single adults (ages 35-55). Every week I sit in a room with some amazing leaders who love Jesus and want to make Him known. But their stage of life is different than mine. I’ve been married since I was 27 years old (over 16 years ago), and often forget what life is like as a single adult. At my last meeting with our leadership team, I asked them to tell me the good parts and tough parts of their lives as single adults. They did the same with me as a married man.
After our discussion time, I know how to better care for and empathize with single adults. If we’re not willing to ask questions, we’ll never empathize well with others.
This might be the hardest option. When you ask questions, listen to their answers. Don’t just sit back and formulate your response. Rather, ask questions, pay attention, and listen.
Proverbs 18:2 says, “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.” Don’t be a fool and delight in the sound of your own voice. Rather, take time to pause, listen, and seek to understand.
4) Spend time together
There’s no substitute for quality time together. I gain greater empathy with others through the ministry of presence. Play, eat meals, serve, and spend time together. When you do, you have a better understanding of what life is like in their shoes.
5) Be observant
Keep those eyes open and develop a curiosity to better understand others. I’ve learned, through observation, that my four boys respond to critique in very different ways. When I challenge my third-born son to be more aggressive on the soccer field, he responds well. He sticks his chest out and plays harder. When I challenge my youngest with the same words on the basketball court, his head sinks and he feels defeated. I’ve learned, through watching my boys, how to best encourage and challenge them. As a result, I’m a more empathetic father.
6) Be humble
Why is this the answer to every problem and opportunity in life? God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5, James 4:6). Humility looks good on everyone and helps us in every aspect of life.
Sometimes we need to be humble and say, “I don’t even know what to say right now, but thanks for telling me and sharing with me.” Empathy requires a level of humility that doesn’t pretend, but rather allows us to understand what others are walking through.
Along these lines, be a learner. When you’re humble you acknowledge you’re not a “know-it-all.” No one wants to spend time with a know-it-all. About a year ago, I listened to a 40-session podcast from a guy who holds to a definition of marriage that’s different from my view. After listening to his podcast, I didn’t change my beliefs, but I did develop a much greater level of empathy for him.
I have to do the same thing as I lead pre-married and newly married couples. It’s been a long time since I’ve been single/dating/newly married, so I do all I can, with humility, to better understand their challenges and opportunities.
7) Walk in their shoes.
One part of rightly understanding empathy is that we see things from the perspective of the other person and think beyond ourselves.
A few years ago, my friends Jeff and Rick, who help lead our external focus efforts at Watermark church, wanted to better understand life as someone who is homeless. They spent the night in a homeless shelter in Dallas to better care for and empathize with others. They sacrificed their comforts so they could better understand.
This step will look different depending on our stage of life and who we’re trying to empathize with. If I want to better empathize with my twin teenagers, I can’t spend a day with them in junior high, but I can invite their friends over. I can chaperone a class trip. Or, I can spend a few minutes trying to remember what it was like, many moons ago, when I was in junior high.
You and I have a great opportunity to care for others. For far too long, the church has not done a good job of understanding others. But, we can do a much better job of seeking to walk alongside followers of Christ and build friendships with those outside the faith if we would learn to develop greater empathy.
I know I can do a better job of “feeling with” others. I know I don’t like it when others lack empathy with me, so instead of complaining about it, I’m going to do what I can to empathize with others.
A version of this post originally appeared on ScottKedersha.com and was republished with permission.
Scott Kedersha is the director of premarital and newly married ministries at Watermark Community Church in Dallas, TX. He’s a loyal husband and father to four boys.