Four ways to become more empathetic

Marie Miyashiro, author and facilitator, says empathy can best be fostered if we examine our needs and the needs of others, and how they're expressed in the way we communicate.
'Empathy isn't just about being nice. It's about being real.' (Sean Foley/CBC)

Empathy. It's an essential quality in building solid human relationships at work, at home, and in our social lives.

But it's also elusive. 

Maybe that's because we misunderstand what empathy is, or we don't know how to practice it.

Marie Miyashiro is an author who teaches people about empathy; she's also studied non-violent communication with its originator, Marshall Rosenberg.

Miyashiro offers these four recommendations to help you more deeply understand how empathy works, and how you can apply it to your life:

1. Distinguish between niceness, kindness, and compassion

'When we're being nice, our primary concern is still ourselves. We don't want to upset someone, or we don't want someone to be upset with us. We don't want to rock the boat, so we're nice. Kind is riskier. Kindness is feeling what someone else is feeling, extending ourselves to imagine what could be going on for them; being curious. And then compassion is actually making a choice to take action and do something about it, so it's another level, acting on our empathy, our kindness."

2. Know the two main ingredients for empathy

Feelings - things we actually feel in our body, as opposed to thoughts, ideas, notions. Feelings are our "little messenger, our alarm clock that tells us 'hey, something's going on inside of us.' And feelings are triggered by needs that are satisfied or unsatisfied."

Needs - "Human needs are one-word, really powerful, life-motivating energies, like love, trust, companionship, collaboration, being understood … so when we have unpleasant feelings, it means one of these needs or life forces isn't being satisfied.  And the opposite is true: when they are being satisfied, we feel very pleasant feelings."

"Connecting to feelings and needs makes us aware of what needs are important to us, and then we can say, what can I do about this human need?"

3.  Breathe. Yes, breathe. Slow things down.

"When we're overwhelmed with feelings, that's not very useful, because now we've lost the balance between our emotional side and our cognitive, logical side.  One of the best things to do is to take deep breaths. To become in command of our nervous system again. And in my experience, that's one of the most important prerequisites to being empathetic, to being truly empathetic; to slow down, calm the nervous system down, and be able to notice what we're thinking, what we're telling ourselves, and notice our feelings.  When we do that, empathy becomes almost natural."

4. Guess the needs of others

"People tell these long stories because they don't know how to tell you what the needs are underneath what they're feeling. So if we can help them guess that, and you say to them, 'Ah, so was it your need for respect that wasn't [met] when he said that?' and they go, 'Yeah, yeah, that's it...', they often stop speaking. Because that's really the heart of what they were trying to get to."

Click LISTEN to hear more from Marie Miyashiro, including her initial empathy experiment - during a cab ride.