Handy guide to empathy

Sometimes family—even family you love—can be the worst. Your mom is always on your case, your kid never does his homework without being reminded, your significant other is forever leaving dirty dishes in the sink, or your sibling is constantly “borrowing” your stuff. It can be tempting to only think of your own side of the story and unleash your best rage-mouth, but these kinds of situations can actually be a chance to make your relationship better by instead unleashing empathy. Empathy involves identifying the feelings of others, taking another person’s perspective, and responding with compassion. Below is a step by step guide—based on best-practices and science!—to building empathy while you’re hashing out conflicts with loved ones:


Start by doing a hand-clapping exercise together (Wait, don’t leave! Seriously, hear us out.). Doing synchronous activities (activities in which you’re doing something in rhythm) can help get people to feel more in tune (pun super intended). Here’s a video of a hand-clapping exercise (We know it’s cheesy; just try it). If you insist on being too cool for hand-claps, you could try something like drumming or head-banging to some metal music or hammering nails to a beat or something. The key is: move a part of your body in rhythm to create a sound and do it in sync with each other.


  1. Have a seat somewhere comfortable
  2. Take a deep breath
  3. Make eye contact


When listening: Don’t make assumptions, ask questions. Watch for body language and notice tone of voice. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. How would you feel if you were them? Not, how would you feel if you were you in their situation; how would you feel if you were them (knowing what you know about who they are)?

When talking: Focus on your own thoughts and feelings, not on blaming the other person. Try not to raise your voice.

First, identify the situation that’s causing conflict.

Pick someone to be the first listener and someone to be the first talker. The listener will ask the following three questions and listen to the talker answer them. Then switch roles and repeat.

  1. What happened?
  2. What were you thinking at the time?
  3. Who was affected by that?

Switch back to the first listener and ask this question, then switch roles again and repeat:

  1. What are you thinking now?

Now talk about these questions together:

  1. What could we have done differently?
  2. What needs to happen next?

[Based on: Ted Talk by restorative practitioner Michelle Stowe]


People are more empathetic with those who have similar experiences so, if you haven’t already, find something you two can do together on a regular basis. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. We especially recommend listening to music together (because science!) but all kinds of things will work: tossing a baseball in the back yard, playing video games, doing dishes, coloring in coloring books, doing a crossword together, fixing a car, watching jeopardy, building a table, pulling weeds, whatever. Just as long as you can do it together and it happens fairly regularly.

Practice these steps regularly when conflicts come up with people in your life. If you do, you’ll be more empathetic, there’ll less conflict in your life, and everyone will be envious of your sick hand-clapping skills.

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