What Is Empathy (And Why Does It Matter)?

March 5, 2023

8 min read

What Is Empathy

If you’re looking to be a compelling communicator, empathy is often considered essential. At the very least, it can be a helpful tool when speaking or communicating with someone, both in your professional and personal lives. 

Still, empathy can be a tricky skill to learn. For some people, it comes naturally. For others, it’s a learned skill that takes work. 

If learning how to be empathetic is one of your goals, we’ve got you covered. We’ll explain what empathy is, the different types, examples, why empathy matters, and tips for improvement.  

But first: What is empathy?

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and identify the emotions of others. If you can notice how someone is feeling right off the bat, you’re most likely a very empathetic person. Empathetic people can also often tell what someone is thinking, just by looking at them.

Not everyone has the ability to empathize and that’s OK. However, empathy is a skill that you can work on if that’s a goal of yours. 

What Are the Types of Empathy?

There are a couple of types of empathy, pinpointed by researchers. The two main types are affective empathy and cognitive empathy.

What Is Affective Empathy?

Affective empathy is the emotions and sensations a person feels as a result of someone else’s emotions

For example, when you see someone who’s very anxious or stressed, you might in turn start to feel some anxiety or stress. In a similar fashion, if you’re on a rollercoaster that’s just starting to creep forward and your seatmate is terrified, you could start to feel afraid just because they are. 

Essentially, affective empathy involves mirroring another person’s emotions. 

What Is Cognitive Empathy?

On the other hand, there’s cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to not only recognize someone else’s feelings, but also to understand them. This type of empathy is also called “perspective taking.” For some people, this kind of empathy can be especially difficult. 

Empathy Examples

Empathy can take lots of forms and because of that, it can be hard to recognize sometimes. To get a better understanding, here are a few empathy examples:

Expressing Your Own Emotions

This won’t always be the case, but sometimes it helps to share your own feelings. For example, if a friend’s parent dies, saying something like, “Oh, I know how you feel” isn’t very helpful. It might be more helpful to honestly express your own emotions by saying something like, “Wow, I can’t imagine what you must be going through.” Even responding by saying, “I don’t know what to say” is OK sometimes. 

Being Engaging

Although it can be tricky and nuanced, being engaging and showing interest in something that someone’s saying or doing is a great way to be empathetic. Body language like smiling, soft eye contact, nodding, and even raising your eyebrows can help. Asking relevant questions is a good way, too. 

Recognizing Someone’s Pain

When someone’s in pain, it can be hard to know what to do. Acknowledging it is a safe first step. It helps you connect to the person in a genuine way and can even provide them comfort. One of the most common ways to do this is by saying something like, “I hate that you’re going through this” or “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

Supporting Someone

Support can take lots of forms, too. But verbal support is a great way to show empathy. For example, if someone you love is having a hard time with a difficult coworker at work, avoid saying, “Oh, me too” and starting your own story. Instead, offer some verbal support, like “I’m in your corner” or “Would you like to talk about it?”

Now, let’s get into some tips for how to practice empathy on your own. 

Tips for How to Practice Empathy

Practicing empathy can be difficult at first if you’re not a naturally empathetic person (and there’s nothing wrong with that!).

However, if you’re interested in learning and building up your own empathy, it’s totally doable. Here are some tips for how to practice empathy. 

  1. Don’t ignore facial expressions. You can tell a lot from someone’s face and facial expressions. Although it might seem tricky at first, taking the time to study facial expressions will pay off, according to research. You can even do this while you watch TV. Turn on your favorite show (even if it’s a cartoon) and pay special attention to the characters’ expressions. In this case, the character’s dialogue can help, too. If you’re interested, Berkeley has an emotional intelligence quiz that can give you some insight.
  1. Stand up to discrimination and inequality. Even though this might seem overwhelming — and it definitely can be — getting involved in advocacy work and actively working to combat discrimination can help you improve your empathy. For example, you could explore local advocacy groups in your community. Even something as simple as using inclusive language is a great way to practice empathy.
  1. Work on your body language. Empathetic body language is essential to expressing empathy. Some mannerisms you could start using include raising your eyebrows to show interest, smiling, nodding, making eye contact, and relaxing your face. When in doubt, try to mirror the other person’s body language. This can be very helpful if you’re stuck and not sure how to move your body. 
  1. Avoid judging and jumping to conclusions. Although it’s tempting, try not to jump to conclusions. You’re less likely to empathize if you’re always assuming things about others. Assuming things and jumping to conclusions are different from “walking in someone’s shoes” — the latter refers to trying to imagine what someone else is experiencing. 
  1. Improve your overall awareness. Though you might not think about it, extending your awareness to take note of your surroundings is helpful for empathy, too. You may have heard the term “people watching” before — the concept of literally watching people go about their lives. This is similar. Being aware of how others around you are acting can improve your empathy by exposing you to different expressions and behaviors. 

There are also specific exercises and activities geared toward helping people learn empathy.

Empathy Exercises

Empathy exercises are a great way to practice being empathetic. Here are a few empathy exercises to keep in mind to get you going.

Explore altruism. Altruism is generally defined as “unselfish concern.” For this exercise, the goal is to connect to someone. Try doing a good deed for someone. It doesn’t have to be huge — even holding the door open for someone at the DMV can count. This tiny action can be a live reminder of empathy and empathetic acts.

Try active listening. You’re probably familiar with passive listening — listening to someone in silence without reacting. Active listening is a great empathy exercise. Next time you’re talking to someone, instead of listening in silence, try to ask some relevant questions, even if you think the subject is boring. For example, if someone seems to be droning on and on about how their child is an honors student, you might ask what the child’s favorite subject is. A simple question like that shows the other person you’re engaged and interested (even if you couldn’t care less).

Getting to know you. This exercise doesn’t have to be an in-person activity. Start by thinking of someone you dislike or who seems very opposite of you. Next, get out a sheet of paper and a pen and make a list of similar traits the two of you share. No matter how different the person is, there will definitely be traits you have in common, even if it’s something as simple as, “We both like Manchester United.” 

Empathy in practice. This one also doesn’t need to be in person. For this exercise, turn on your local news channel or take a look in the paper. Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. So, for example, if you’re reading about a business owner who just opened a new cupcake store, imagine what they’re like as a person and what it must’ve took to open a business. 

How to Improve Empathy

If you’d like to learn how to improve your empathy skills, you’re in the right place. To work on your empathy, you can try taking advantage of a communication coach like Yoodli to practice. 

Through artificial intelligence (AI) technology, Yoodli is able to completely analyze a user’s speech and speaking patterns from start to finish. To practice your empathy, simply upload or record a video of yourself responding to everyday conversation prompts (such as, “How was your weekend?”). 

Focus on your empathetic body language and tone. Yoodli will give you analytics on not only things like your pacing and word choice, but also your body language. 

While you’re working on your empathetic body language, you can see if your practice is paying off. Yoodli can evaluate your expressions and let you know if you should try to smile more or if you need to be making more eye contact.

You can also involve a friend or two to practice empathy. Join a Zoom or Google Meet call with your friends and have a chat. All the while, remember those tips to work on your empathy and try to employ them as often as possible. 

Next, save and upload your recording to Yoodli. Learn how to record Google Meet if you’re unsure. 

When you analyze a group recording, Yoodli can let you know information related to empathy, including your talk time (AKA did you give other people enough time to talk or did you start to monologue?) and whether or not you asked enough questions. The latter is especially important, since asking others relevant questions shows that you’re engaged and capable of empathy. 

What Is Empathy
Using Yoodli to take a look at your talk time analytics can help you become a more empathetic speaker.

You can learn more about talk time below: 

Talk time goes hand-in-hand with empathy.

But does empathy really matter?

Why Is Empathy Important?

Empathy is important because it allows us to step into someone else’s shoes and get an understanding of what emotions they’re feeling. This is helpful because being empathetic can help you know how to respond to the situation at hand. 

The more empathy a person has, the more likely they’re able to step up to the plate and help someone. 

The Bottom Line

Empathy can be a powerful tool, both in your professional and personal lives. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with having trouble showing empathy. Some aren’t empathetic, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, if it’s a goal of yours to learn how to be empathetic or to improve your empathy skills, that’s OK too (and it’s totally doable!). 

To improve your empathy, try implementing the tips you’ve learned via Yoodli to gain valuable insights. You’ll be able to elevate your speech while achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself. 


Start practicing with Yoodli.

Getting better at speaking is getting easier. Record or upload a speech and let our AI Speech Coach analyze your speaking and give you feedback.