By David Higle

Reflecting God’s own triune nature, we are created to live in loving community with others. As pastors who love, it is essential that we empathize with others: to feel what others feel. People must sense that we understand them. People will know that we truly understand them when they sense that we feel what they feel. Words and actions are not enough. Without empathy, we will be unable to relate effectively to those to whom we are called to love and minister.

Seeking to Understand and Empathize with Others

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Romans 12:15

Here are 5 suggestions for better understanding and empathizing with others. Are you known as someone who can empathize with others? Do you truly understand what others are experiencing? (Adapted from Mel Silberman, People Smart.)

1. Listen more, talk less. Many of us are thinking about what we want to say rather than truly focusing on understanding what the other person is trying to say. Rather, stop what you are doing and look at the other person. Making consistent eye contact is vital. Resist the urge to interrupt. Be careful not to answer your phone or texts. Do you truly listen to others, or are you more concerned with wanting to convey your thoughts? Do others truly sense you are listening to them? This week, ask someone who knows you personally how well they believe you listen to them.

2. Clarify what they mean. Many of us assume we know what someone is going to say before they say it. However, such assumptions can lead to misunderstanding. One way for others to know you are truly seeking to understand them is to ask them to clarify what they are saying. Ask, “What I think I am hearing you say is . . .is that what you mean?” Or invite the other to expand on their thoughts. Making the effort to clarify what the other is saying shows respect and sensitivity. Feeling understood is important to all human relationships. In your next conversation, try to pause to reflect on what the other is intending to say. Clarify what they mean before responding with your thoughts. Do you tend to assume you know what someone is going to say?

3. Observe & interpret behavior. Over 90% of what we communicate comes through body language. Our body language might even be the most honest form of communication (Silberman, p. 29). Learning to observe and interpret facial expressions, body movements, how people stand and sit, can be of very helpful in understanding the larger picture of what someone is communicating. Be careful of “pat judgments,” but pay attention to variations from how others normally behave. How observant are you when in discussion with others? What do the body movements of others tell you about how others are feeling or thinking?

4. Respond to their feelings. Identifying and sensing what others are feeling is important. Do not be afraid to acknowledge how others are feeling; it provides substantial validation and meaning. You can let the other know you are taking their feelings into account by responding, “You seem to feel _________. Is that right?” Sometimes people just want to know you understand how they feel, more than they want a solution. How well do you identify with the feelings of others? Do you tend to dismiss them as unimportant or as keys to truly understanding another?

5. Avoid judgment. It is easy to respond in ways that feign understanding, but actually show our judgment. “You shouldn’t feel that way!” or, “I can’t believe you did that!” are statements which fail to truly listen to the other. Or perhaps you are prone to giving advice when it is not asked for (Silberman, p. 28). Be aware of your tendency to send unintentional messages of judgment, when you might actually be communicating disdain or superiority. How quick are you to respond with your own advice to others? How prone are you to denying the validity of what the other feels, even if different from your own response or beliefs?

These insights and more about cultivating friendship and other suggestions for creating healthy relationships can be found in the following resources:

Barbara Pease & Allan Pease. 2006. The Definitive Book of Body Language. New York: Bantam.

Mel Silberman (2000). People Smart. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Helpful articles:
Roman Krznaric, Time Magazine: 5 Ways to be More Empathetic

David Swink, Psychology Today: I Don’t Feel Your Pain

For fun: How good are you at empathizing with others? Take this assessment:Empathy Assessment

(Additional resources available at

Curator of content: Dave Higle