The path to improving one’s ability to understand what people feel and think is not a foreign one. Empathy is a skill; with some guidance and lots of practice, anyone can make drastic improvements. This page covers several useful techniques, mindsets and exercises that can help you improve. As you understand of people improves, your mental model of them will help you predict their needs, wants and reactions in different situations.

Working definitions:

Projection: The belief that others feel and think the same as you would under the same circumstances.

Model: Belief or “map” that predicts and explains people’s behavior.

Stop identifying as a non-empathizer

This is the first step towards empathizing better—or developing any skill for that matter. Negative self-fulfilling prophecies are very real and very avoidable. Brains are plastic; there’s no reason to believe an optimal path-to-improvement doesn’t exist for you. Not understanding people’s behavior is your confusion, not theirs.

When we learn our housemate spent 9 hours cleaning the house, we should blame our flawed map for being confused by his or her behavior. Maybe they’re deathly afraid of cockroaches and found a few that morning, maybe they’re passive aggressively telling you to clean more, or maybe they just procrastinate by cleaning. Our model of the housemate has yet to account for these tendencies.

People tend to explain such confusing behavior with stupidity, creepiness, neurosis or any other traits we associate with the mentally ill. With Occam’s Razor in perspective, these careless judgers are statistically the mentally ill ones. Their model being flawed is much more probable than their housemate going insane.

Similar to the fundamental attribution error, this type of mistake is committed more often with people we dislike. A good challenge is to try understanding confusing behavior from individuals or sub-cultures you dislike. You’ll find yourself disliking them a bit less if you’re doing it right.

Another challenge is to try and find the appeal in popular attractions/entertainment you dislike. For instance, if you dislike music videos, try watching a few until you get the “Aha” moment. Yes, that’s what it should feel like when you get it right.

As you’re able to explain more behaviors, your model of people becomes more robust, making you an overall better empathizer.

Projection works, but not for resolving confusion

People’s intuition for how someone’s feeling is normally accurate—with more ambiguous cases—intuition needs conscious support. Unfortunately, most rely too heavily on the “put yourself in their shoes” mantra. You are not always like most people and can react very differently in the same circumstances. There’s already an inclination to project and putting yourself in their shoes rarely overturns initial judgments. If you’re confused about someone’s behavior, it most likely means projection hasn’t worked so far.

Instead, build accurate models of people and figure out whether your model would’ve predicted such behavior. If not, gather reliable evidence proving what the person actually felt and tweak your model accordingly. Hopefully this is starting to sound a lot like the scientific method.

Understand yourself better

As mentioned above, projection normally works well (which is probably why humans are so inclined to do it). Projection, however, isn’t useful if you can’t predict your own reactions in another’s situation.

Catch yourself next time you experience an emotional reaction and try figuring out what network of beliefs caused it. As a personal anecdote, I tried to uncover the beliefs causing me to procrastinate on my work. I narrowed down the portions of work I had an emotional reaction to and discovered I believed I either didn’t have the skill or knowledge to complete the task. Now, when I try to explain other’s procrastination, I ask what part of the work they are having willpower issues with and determine their self-efficacy for those tasks. I was surprised to learn that others had the same beliefs causing their procrastination. Understanding yourself well can lend more non-trivial competing hypotheses.

Caveat: If you’re very different from most people, then understanding yourself better won’t be as helpful. In this case, I’d suggest finding someone more typical to be your proxy. Get to know them well enough to the point where your proxy model can explain/predict behaviors in other typical people.

Put others in YOUR shoes, that’s how they’re empathizing with you

We often find our empathy skills lacking when trying to explain others’ reactions to our own behaviors. We normally consider how we’d perceive our own behaviors coming from another person before acting—making questions like “Why did he think I didn’t want to see him last night?” or “Why was she so offended by my jokes?” hard to figure out off projection alone.

Use the fact that most people project to your advantage. If someone’s trying to empathize with you, they’ll most likely project i.e. put themselves in your shoes.

Imagine a man and woman on a date at a fancy restaurant and just about finished eating their meals. The waiter drops off the bill and the woman glances at the bill. She says enthusiastically, “Wow great food and for a great price too!” The man pays for the bill and moments later his mood shifts, becoming noticeably sadder and quieter. The woman knew he’s more passive than her, but still confused by his behavior.

As it turns out, the man imagined himself describing food as having a “great price” and realized he’d say that about cheap food. The man brought her to the fancy restaurant hoping to impress her, but felt his attempt failed. The woman didn’t think the food was cheap, she thought it was reasonably priced given how good it tasted and the restaurant’s upscale reputation. If she thought the food was cheap, she’d explicitly say so. Since she knows he’s more passive, she could’ve inferred the man believes others are more or less as passive as he is. Thinking back to the incident, she should’ve considered how people would interpret her statement as if she had a reputation for being passive.

One lesson I’ve learned from this technique is that considerate people are more sensitive to inconsiderate behavior. Because they closely monitor their own behaviors, they tend to assume others are about as equally conscientious. When they determine someone’s behavior to be inconsiderate, they are more likely to interpret the behavior as a sign of dislike or apathy rather than obliviousness.

Knowing others are projecting can help you learn more about yourself too. For instance, if you’re confused as to why your friends always ask “Is everything’s ok?” when you feel fine, consider that your friends may be observing certain behaviors they themselves would exhibit when uncomfortable. And maybe you are, in fact, uncomfortable, but aren’t consciously aware of it.

The simplest explanation is usually correct

As you develop your mental model of people, you’ll notice models share a lot in common. For instance, primitive motives like attraction, attention and status can explain the same behaviors exhibited in many people. These “universal” components to your models often yield more likely hypotheses. People are obviously more typical than they are not.

Try to pick out which behaviors are consistently explained by the same mechanism in your models. For instance, it’s helpful to know that most submissive/dominant behavior is done out of status disparities, not some idiosyncratic personality trait. Your knowledge of how people interact with status disparities will offer a powerful starting hypothesis.

As you continue to merge your models together, you’ll be that much closer to a unifying theory of people!

Build models of people, like a scientist

Start developing models of individuals and groups, which predict their behaviors under certain circumstances. Like a scientist, when the model proves to have low predictive value, tweak them until they do. Combining your models is a good approach.

Say you’re having trouble understanding why your brother does everything his new “friend” tells him to do. He’s never acted like that towards anyone before; your model of your brother is missing something. Fortunately, you’ve seen such behavior before, explained by a different model, the one of your co-worker. That model made you realize that, like your co-worker, your brother finds his new friend much higher status and feels lucky receiving his attention. Not only did you strengthen your brother model, you’ve also collected more evidence that such behavior is more likely status-related and less likely person-specific, making all your models more robust.

Experience more

If I tried imagining what a professional soccer player feels like scoring a winning goal, I’d use my memory of the time I scored the winning goal at a pick-up soccer game and multiply my euphoria by some factor. Imagining what emotions someone would feel under circumstances you’ve never experienced isn’t easy. Your best approximation may depend on a similar circumstance you have experienced. Therefore, experiencing more means being a better empathizer.

Empathy checklist

Here’s a short checklist of the different techniques to use whenever you’re confronted with confusing behavior. Run through the list until you feel confident about your conclusion.

Put yourself in their shoes

  • Think of times you’ve been in a similar situation and explain your reaction

  • Can the behavior be explained by a more “universal” model than a person-specific one?

  • How are they empathizing with you, given they are projecting?

  • How are they empathizing with you, given what you know about how they perceive others?

  • What successful model have you used to explain similar behavior for similar people?

  • Is your conclusion affected by your attitude towards the subject?

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