Believe it or not, it is possible to develop your empathetic ability. The goal in understanding others is to let them know that they are supported and how they feel is important to you. The outcome can be life changing: You will find it easier to deal with the negativity of others by understanding their motivations, and will more calmly be able to deal with struggles in your relationships.

It takes time and effort but if, instead of assuming and judging, we had the willingness to pause before jumping to conclusions and consider alternative viewpoints, we might open up the possibility for more authentic, enriched interactions and relationships. The secret is to become more empathetic and stay out of judgment, by acknowledging what others are feeling.

This process requires examining your thoughts and emotions, then correcting certain habits of mind (like taking sides in a conflict) and replacing them with more productive behaviors such as considering the perspective of both sides. It also means taking responsibility for your own thinking, such as stereotypical, snap judgments and prejudices about how people "should" behave.

Here is a quick exercise to assist you with this process. Take a moment to think about a situation, either personal or professional, in which you may be judging someone rather than attempting to understand their point of view.

Answer the following:

  1. What action or behavior is the person demonstrating that you object to? (Talking behind your back, making critical remarks, ignoring you, producing sloppy work, or arriving late).
  2. What are you thinking or doing in response? This may include name-calling, complaining, holding resentments or limiting your perspective (It's his fault that... She doesn't know what she's talking about...) or generalizing, (My company/friend/partner doesn't support me... My coworkers are unfriendly... People here just don't get along...). Or perhaps you are expressing negative non-verbal communication (eye rolling, shaking your head, pursing your lips, sighing, or looking away when the other person is speaking).
  3. If you put yourself in their shoes, what might be some of the reasons for his or her behavior?
  4. Is it really about this issue? What is the bigger picture?
  5. How could you respond to this person in a way that would serve you and the other person more effectively? Can you imagine a better outcome for the relationship?

The bottom line is this: No two people are going to experience a given reality in the same way, and sometimes long-term animosities prevail. But when you free yourself from the propensity to judge others by misinterpreting, assuming, labeling and analyzing (how exhausting!) you shut down the noise in your head and get closer to what's really going on.

You certainly can't control anyone's behavior but you can exercise influence over your own mind -- and it is often our own misguided thoughts and reactions that account for most of the problems we face.