How Empathy is Critical for Self-Mastery

Ray Williams
6 min readApr 9, 2024


The following is an excerpt from my new book, The Journey to Self-Mastery: Unlocking the Secrets to Personal Transformation.

How Do You Recognize an Empathetic Person?

Researchers have identified some behaviors that increase empathy. Empathetic people:

  • Listen actively: A person with empathy hears what the other person has to say first and speaks only after that. Empathic people use active listening to comprehend others, which includes asking themselves questions like, “From what I hear you saying, it seems to be…” and asking, “And then?” as well as nodding and smiling.
  • Offer vulnerability. People with empathy frequently share a personal story about a situation or problem like the current one. They become more likeable as a result, and the situation softens.
  • Don’t make assumptions. Assumptions limit their capacity to empathize. To be truly empathic, they must let go of preconceived notions not supported by knowledge or personal experience.
  • Use their imagination. There is no way you could have experienced every situation others discuss with you. So, utilize your imagination to understand the other person’s feelings better. It’s a great idea to try to understand a character whose situation is entirely different from your own by reading fiction literature.
  • Pay close attention to other people. When with empathic people, you frequently feel like the only person in the room. They interact with people by showing them the special gift of their respect and undivided attention, which is unusual in today’s too-distracted culture.
  • Are aware of nonverbal cues. What is being said cannot be adequately expressed by words alone. If you notice someone tensing up, stepping back, or abruptly avoiding eye contact, you can use empathy to reach out. Ask them to explain what is going on nicely rather than dismissing how they are feeling. People are free to openly express their emotions since they are confident they won’t be judged or criticized for doing so. Being emotionally liberated can make it easier to solve problems effectively.
  • Get accustomed to silence. We often try to be helpful by interjecting, giving advice, or finishing others’ sentences. Empathic people are aware of the strength of quiet. They don’t interrupt or talk over other people. They wait before they speak.
  • Ask questions rather than offer suggestions. Instead of stating their own opinions, empathic people prefer to inquire to understand more about another person’s perspective.
  • Are aware of the pain of others. They demonstrate their awareness of other people’s needs and capacity to recognize changes in their behavior.
  • Recognize their own pain. Distress tolerance is the ability to endure or contain uncomfortable emotions. Some people may walk away when faced with another person’s pain, refusing to offer support or take the necessary measures.
  • Retain appropriate eye contact. Making eye contact with others improves communication success and makes them feel seen. and being conscious of cultural variations in eye contact.
  • Identify their own and other people’s emotions. Understanding their feelings and giving them names helps us better grasp an empathic person’s behavior or the meaning behind their words and sentiments.
  • Are conscious of their voice tone. Since tone of voice accounts for more than 38% of nonverbal emotional content in communication, developing empathy is crucial. They will feel heard if you talk in a soothing voice that matches the volume and tone of the person you speak to. Tempering your tone when someone expresses wrath rather than adopting it would help.
  • Appropriately respond rather than react. How we relate to the person we’re speaking to is very important. We frequently synchronize emotionally with others, whether intentionally or unconsciously. It is essential to manage their emotional reaction to prevent merging with the other person or acting in an unhelpful manner.

Is Empathy Inborn, or Can It Be Learned?

Both! From the moment they are born, babies show signs of empathy. Ever notice how one crying baby can set off a roomful of other infants? It’s not just about the noise. Research shows babies react differently to another baby’s genuine cry than to a fake one.

The way children are raised makes a difference. One study by Ruth Feldman and colleagues showed that babies with more physical contact with their mothers developed stronger empathy as they grew. And according to the findings of their meta-analysis of 18 empathy training trials, empathy may be taught.

According to Roman Krznaric, founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, empathy advisor to organizations like Oxfam and the United Nations, and author of The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live and How to Find Fulfilling Work, we can cultivate empathy throughout our lives and use it as a powerful tool for social change.

Since ancient times, there has been an underlying assumption that people are born inherently bad. It’s a concept that shapes news reports, television programs, motion pictures, and the laws that govern our daily lives. The origins of this idea can be found in various works of Western philosophy, including those of Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Sigmund Freud, and, some would claim, the Bible and Christianity. We’ve been taught that people are inherently egocentric and primarily motivated by their own interests.

Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History is one of the best works that argues that empathy is an innate human trait. In his analysis of the past 200,000 years of human history, Bregman argues that humans are inherently kind and empathic, not competitive but rather cooperative, and more prone to trust than distrust one another, explaining how this exists across many cultures. Homo sapiens’ evolutionary history provides a solid evolutionary foundation for this tendency, Bregman says.

A team of developmental psychologists led by Julia Krevans points out that most past research has focused on how much toddlers share objects already theirs. Their new study shows that toddlers frequently display extraordinary justice and kindness.

In a different study, 112 three-year-olds were observed exchanging resources and awards in psychological science in teams of two males and two girls. The sharing in over 80% of these cooperative scenarios was “passive,” meaning that one child got the two fair rewards and left the other for his or her partner. The other child would occasionally be instructed to take their fair share of the pie if they didn’t do so immediately. Other times, one child would deliberately take two rewards and hand the other two to the other two. Physical altercations and disagreements were hardly ever present.

None of these altruistic gestures would have been possible without empathy.

“The present excitement surrounding empathy is a result of a significant shift in the science of how we understand human nature,” according to Krznaric, “Evidence suggests we are not just homo sapiens but also “homo empathicus” — wired for empathy, social collaboration, and mutual aid — pushing the traditional thinking that believes humans are essentially self-interested creatures to the side.”

In the last ten years, neuroscientists have learned that our brains have an “empathy circuit” that, if damaged, can restrict our ability to understand how others feel. Evolutionary biologists like Frans de Waal claimed that we are social animals who have evolved and thrived as a species to care for one another.

Researchers A. Senju and colleagues claim that we are already predisposed to feeling empathy at the age of 18 months.

Jamil Zaki’s book The War for Kindness states, “Our collaborative flair stems from empathy: the capacity to share, understand, and care about what others feel. People who can empathize easily report better levels of contentment, lower levels of stress, and simpler social interactions. Everyone involved benefits from these positive effects: patients of empathic doctors are happier with the care they receive, spouses of empathic people are happier in their marriages, children of empathic parents are better able to control their emotions, and employees of empathic managers suffer from stress-related illnesses less frequently. Empathy maintains the social fabric of our society by encouraging altruism, tolerance for those who are different from us in appearance or ideology, and commitment to environmental sustainability.”



Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others