How to increase empathy, part 2: a model and strategy

Yesterday’s post discussed how the world complicates understanding empathy with vague definitions and associating it with neediness and unwanted emotions.
Today I’ll describe a simple model to understand empathy simply.

A simple model for empathy

The model you have for something determines how you understand it and how you use it. I’ll talk about emotions in general and then empathy in particular

A simple model for emotions in general

Many people contrast emotions with reason and conclude that emotions are irrational or random. I also used to think so, and that mental model undermined my ability to understand others’ emotions and motivations, as well as my own.
I’ve found another model more useful. My series on The Model, explains my model for emotions more deeply, but the important part is:

Emotions are the motivations our emotional system creates to guide our behavior.

Our emotional system evolved to help us live and pass on our genes, so its motivations will almost always promote those goals.

Its input is our environment as we perceive it through the lens of our beliefs and its output is our beliefs.

Here it is visually:
Spodek's simple model for emotions
How does this model help?
It suggests emotions are consistent, reliable, and predictable, based on a person’s environments, beliefs, and behavioral capabilities, and that they are functional, not purposeless.
You could say I oversimplified it. I recommend trying to think about emotions through that lens anyway. If you want to add details, be my guest. I find it a helpful and simple starting point, simple enough to understand but with enough nuance to be useful and widely applicable.

A simple model for empathy

If you want to understand the emotions someone feels and why, the model above suggests a strategy. Since emotions result from someone’s environment, beliefs, and behavior, if you know those three things, you’ll understand their emotions.

A strategy to understand someone’s emotions:

  1. Try to understand their environment—not just their physical environment, but the people they know relevant to the situation, themselves, and so on.
  2. Try to understand their beliefs. This can be hard because you can’t directly see their beliefs. They may not consciously know them. Still, usually the best way to find out is to ask.
  3. See their environment through their beliefs, meaning forgetting yours and understanding theirs. As hard as understanding someone’s beliefs while letting go of your own may feel, it’s often simpler than understanding emotions without this middle step.
  4. Think of what behaviors would make most sense from that understanding. Since you don’t know them perfectly, you may not easily come up with behaviors that they’re acting on. If not, keep thinking of new ones or going back a step and trying to understand their beliefs better.
  5. When you hit on a behavior that matches theirs, the emotion associated with it is likely close to how they feel.

If the strategy seems oversimplified, again, try it out and see if it helps. If so, but you find it limiting, add to it.

An example

If someone seems depressed, someone without empathy might think they’re lazy or complacent. But laziness and complacency alone don’t make sense under the emotional model because laziness and complacency don’t seem like they would help our ancestors survive. Lazy and complacent ancestors would more likely starve or get eaten by predators.
When someone seems depressed to me, I often find when I learn more about them, they’ve tried different solutions to some big problem and found none worked. When they ran out of potential solutions, they resigned themselves to enduring the problem. Their experience taught them to believe nothing would work. From that perspective, their behavior makes sense. If nothing works, why bother wasting energy trying?
If I have a solution I know would work but they don’t believe it, I’m not empathetic if I judge them for not using it. My solution might work, but problem-solving isn’t empathy.

My model for empathy

Based on my model for emotions:

Empathy is when you understand someone’s environment and beliefs so their behavior makes sense.

You don’t have to agree with their beliefs or behavior to understand them. People like to feel understood. People who feel understood will more likely help you understand them more and will allow themselves to become more vulnerable to you, meaning they will more likely share their emotions and motivations.
If you want to help or influence them, this understanding will help you. The lack of it will undermine you.
To empathize with someone—that is, to feel their emotions—imagine yourself in the environment with the beliefs that the strategy from the section before suggested, not yours. The more accurately you get these things, the more you’ll start to feel like they do.


There is a process to understand someone else’s emotions to the point of feeling them—that is, to empathize with them. You start with a perspective that emotions are consistent and predictable outputs of their emotional system based on that person’s environment, beliefs, and potential behaviors, not that emotions are unpredictable, irrational, or random.
With that perspective, these steps will lead you to understand their emotions and even feel them, which will foster mutual understanding and collaboration

  1. Try to understand their environment.
  2. Try to understand their beliefs.
  3. See their environment through their beliefs.
  4. Think of what behaviors would make most sense from that understanding.
  5. When you hit on a behavior that matches theirs, the emotion associated with it is likely close to how they feel.

After step 5, you’ve understood them. Imagining yourself in their situation leads you to empathize with them.

My motivation for these models

Growing up I didn’t understand or care about emotions since they seemed weird and fuzzy, I had to learn how to understand them in simple, precise terms. It took time and experimentation, but things fell into place. Now emotions are one of my main focuses. I consider understanding them and the skills to use them among the most important parts of my life.

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