Empathy is so, so much more than feeling for others when something bad happens to them. Empathy is really the only thing that allows human beings to reach out and connect to one another emotionally. Without empathy we cannot imagine another person’s world, perspective, or emotions. Philosophers call this capacity to guess at the hidden inner world of people other than ourselves “theory of mind.” In imagining another’s inner world, empathy is the what, and communication is the how. If we want to connect emotionally with others and share in their world, we need to understand how to communicate with them. If there isn’t empathy, other people are nothing more than abstract entities to us, rather than living, breathing beings that we can feel.
There are actually two kinds of empathy: positive and negative. A charismatic person has both. Picture a woman who wins last place at a beauty pageant. She smiles broadly, hugs the winner and congratulates her. She revels in the winner’s excitement and takes pleasure in her happiness, telling her how proud she is of her. It’s a good look, right? This is what is called positive empathy – the ability to derive joy from other people’s joy, and to feel good purely because they do. This is not even about social self-control, but genuine pleasure at other people’s fortunes.
It's the opposite of jealousy, insecurity and selfishness, because it centers and finds satisfaction in someone else. The irony is that it ends up making the admirer so much more likeable, too! Charismatic people are never jealous (at least not outwardly…), and they don’t compete in public or put themselves or others down. Watch any interview with the charismatic Dolly Parton, for example, and observe how she never puts down others in the industry, even those who criticize her. She playfully laughs off even insults with grace and humor. “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb – I also know I’m not blonde.”
You can improve your own charisma by refusing to let other people’s achievements threaten you, or their light undermine your own. Anxious people take the brilliance of others as a problem, perhaps because deep down, they doubt themselves and feel insecure. But if you get alongside those who are doing better than you, you elevate yourself and communicate a powerful message that you know how to generate your own value that does not depend on others being smaller than you.
When you feel that tinge of jealousy or envy, swallow your pride and praise or congratulate that person. Ask for their advice. Lavish them with compliments. Be their friend. See if you can genuinely find happiness for them. This not only makes you appear more magnanimous and mature as a person, but it will encourage you to think: why don’t I do the same? Train yourself to see jealousy as an invitation to be better. Is there some potential going unfulfilled in you?
Negative empathy is the one most of us are familiar with, i.e., the ability to sympathize with and feel into the pain and suffering of others. Being able to help, support and comfort those in need is great, but it usually comes from a deeper ability to sincerely feel what others feel. Intellectually understanding the facts of someone’s negative emotion is not the same as feeling that emotion along with them.ty in every interaction. In a:
Strategy 1: Read
It might seem odd that this solitary activity would make you more socially charismatic and better in conversations – but it does! Reading puts you in someone else’s shoes. You get to try on perspectives other than your own, inhabit someone else’s narrative, see their values, and feel their interpretation of events. Think of it as an empathy training camp.
When you’re with others, try to really grasp that from their point of view, they are the most important people in their worlds, in the same way that you feel that you are the center of your own. You begin to build real empathy when you understand that other people will always experience themselves as the protagonists of a story that may run on values and principles completely alien to you. And you can tailor and adjust your communication accordingly.
A kind and sympathetic person can think, “I feel for you, because I’d feel bad if that happened to me.” But a truly empathetic person can think, “I feel for you, because I can see that it feels bad for you.” Reading fiction helps you appreciate others, and see them not from your perspective, but see them how they see themselves, from their perspective. Make sure it’s the right kind of reading though – mix up your authors and go for quality literary fiction from different eras, countries and styles to broaden your scope. Reading the same author constantly or flipping through People magazine doesn’t count…
Strategy 2: Make an experience filter
You know how in kid’s TV shows, the hero occasionally says something like, “now, if I were a lost walrus who escaped from a zoo, where is the first place I would go?” It sounds silly, but the ability to genuinely see life through the lens of someone (or some walrus) who isn’t you is actually a sophisticated expression of empathy – and helps us be charismatic.
Try this right now: think of someone you’re very close to, and then think of a current situation or issue in your own life. Now, ask yourself, “what would X think or feel about this situation?” Literally pretend you are them, with all their idiosyncrasies, beliefs, blind spots, goals and fears. When you do this, you create an “experience filter” that acts as a representation of that person in your mind. It’s not the same as that person, no, but it is a stepping stone that helps you get into their world and empathize, as well as see the limits of your own perspective.
People react to life and interpret situations according to who they are. If you can really see this, you give yourself an edge in any social interaction. You can pitch your communication to them so that they actually hear it. For example, maybe you’re a very emotional and verbally expressive person, but you know your mechanical engineer friend is more of a concrete, visual person who thinks in practical terms.
When you want to ask for their help, you don’t get too focused on your vision of things, and instead frame your request as they would: you appeal to their logical side, and ask briefly for a clear and limited set of actions, focusing not on how grateful you’d be to get their help, but how it makes sense to ask them since they’re the most knowledgeable, and the problem needs to be solved. When you hear people say about others that they “can talk to anyone,” this is what they mean: a charismatic person doesn’t just know how to speak, they know how to speak other people’s languages.
Strategy 3: Deliberately practice theory of mind
Let’s say you’re at the post office and trying to get a package mailed, but the person behind the counter is being really unhelpful. You’re in a rush and they’re apparently not, and all you can focus on is the way the interaction feels to you: this person is standing in the way of the thing you want, and it’s beginning to get annoying. Perhaps you look at their actions – the dawdling, the “attitude” or the refusal to quickly cut a few corners to speed things up – and from your perspective it looks like they’re being obtuse and stubborn. You say rudely, “are you trying to make me angry?”
A little empathy could go a long way in a situation like this. Empathy could help us understand other people’s behavior not in relation to our own interpretations, goals or values, but according to theirs. Empathy could make us peak out of our experience and into someone else’s. It could help us notice, for example, that we are the last customer of the day, and that the post office was due to close 5 minutes ago. You might notice that the person is taking a long time because they have to boot the system back up again. What does the situation look like from their perspective? Just a few moments pondering this, and we’d have a novel insight: the person believes they’re already doing us a favor after a long day by agreeing to serve us past closing time. From their point of view, we are the rude ones.
Theory of mind allows us to have the mature and grounding realization that we are not the only ones in the universe, and that our point of view is just that: a point of view, not reality itself. Everything other people say and do comes from a perfectly legitimate perspective informed by their background and their unique take on things. Our own thoughts, attitudes, expectations and interpretations might feel invisible to us, but they are no less arbitrary than anyone else’s. Without theory of mind, we barge ahead on our own mission, insensitive to other people’s realities. The result is usually conflict, misunderstanding or, even at the best of times, a failure to connect.
Deliberately practicing theory of mind doesn’t mean focusing on other people’s perspectives to the exclusion of your own. It simply means being aware that there are different viewpoints in the first place! Many of unconsciously place ourselves at the center of every conversation, and assume that others share our desires, know what we know, and think as we think. When you stop doing this, you naturally become more accepting and open-minded, because you no longer privilege your own experience as somehow more central or important than others’.
Here's a trick to try next time you find yourself thinking that someone is confusing, infuriating or plain old wrong. Assume that their behavior makes total sense. Take as a given that their words and actions completely align with their perspective, and then ask what that tells you about that perspective.
The way we ourselves act always makes sense to us because we know what is happening inside our own minds (usually!). But when someone behaves in a way that gets to us, it can be extremely useful to ask, “what does this behavior tell me about this person’s perspective?” From that point on, you can talk to that perspective, rather than to a strawman or reflection of your own perspective. You’re also likely to respect and accept that viewpoint, rather than seeing it as a problem simply because it’s not like yours.
Strategy 4: Listen for facts versus interpretations
A great way to build more empathy and get into people’s perspectives is to practice listening to what you’re told, and discerning between fact and opinion. This is more difficult than it first seems. In conversations, perspective, interpretation, opinion and unique points of view are often presented mixed with concrete facts. The facts are just facts – the capital of Italy is Rome, today is Tuesday, your car has four wheels – but everything else is up for discussion. When people talk, they’re really offering you a sprinkle of fact… and a big mix of assumptions, interpretations, expectations, beliefs, anecdotal memories, arguments, value judgments and claims. This is where perspective lives. Change any of these, and the perspective changes, too.
Imagine someone says to you, “Last Tuesday, the guy at the post office lost his temper with me completely out of the blue.” Let’s look closely at this. What is fact here? Well, the person was at the post office last Tuesday. There was a guy there. And everything else? Not fact. That someone “lost their temper” is value judgment and interpretation. “Out of the blue” is an opinion and personal assessment.
Basically, there are many unknowns here, and only a few facts. Maybe it was not out of the blue, but completely warranted. Maybe no tempers were lost, but there was simply some mild irritation. And maybe the irritation was not directed at the person speaking, but the result of something entirely unrelated. By separating out fact from fiction this way, you are clearly identifying what the person’s perspective is: from their point of view, this is the story. However, simply changing the words of the story allows you to realize this perspective is at play and then switch it up. “Lost his temper” could be reworded as “yelled at the top of his lungs” or “got a little impatient”, each framing a different perspective.
The true value here is that you can read between the lines and understand their emotions and what it is that they are really trying to express. Usually, it’s not the facts or logic, it’s the emotions. Anyone that has ever had an argument with a significant other can attest to this; logic will only get you so far because the reason there is an argument in the first place is almost always due to underlying emotions not being attended to or heard. When you know the difference between facts and interpretation, you will know what to focus on and make people feel glad that they told you something – because you can give them the reaction they were looking for instead of blindly focusing on pedantry.
All of this is to say that if you want to master perspective-switching and having the empathy needed for real charisma, you need to learn to identify the language of a perspective, as well as change that language to change perspective. Charismatic people know that words are like magic – when you change them, the whole world seems to change before your eyes. This understanding allows a charismatic person to say to the post office worker, “Gosh! You’re such a lifesaver helping me out last minute like this. Thank you for being so quick!”
The postal worker feels seen, understood and maybe a little flattered. From their perspective, they also want to get things done as quickly as possible. They work as fast as they humanly can and are polite, too – which is not the outcome you’d get if you’d impatiently asked, “what’s the hold up anyway?”