Empathy is usually explained by saying "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another" but, what if we said, "it is an attempt to better understand the other person by getting to know their perspective."
Some people believe you either have empathy, or you don't, but this is just not true. The truth is that empathy takes effort and work for many people, and some are not willing or don't know how to do the work.
The reason empathy is important today now more than ever, is that everyone seems to be on a side and there is not much effort to come together and work on more significant issues that face us in the world and our communities. If someone feels understood by you, they are much more likely to reciprocate the effort and try to understand your position and beliefs as well.
Steps to take to learn how to have empathy:
1) When you first encounter someone who has gone through something intense, try to remember a time in your life when you have felt those intense feelings. You do NOT have to have had the same experience, but the same feelings.
2) Now imagine you had those feelings and you were put in the situation that this person is going through. How would it feel to you? Resist the urge to judge or tell this person what you think the solution is.
3) Now that you can feel what this person may be going through, it is time to act. First, ask them what you can do to help. If they are unable to answer or do not know how you can help offer suggestions. Do they need a day of childcare, meals delivered this week, or just someone to sit with them until they are ready? Think about yourself again, and what made you feel better or what you would have liked someone to have done for you when you felt those similar feelings in the past. Be prepared for them not to want any help and in that case make sure they have your number and check in on them.
Remember this takes effort and some time to get the hang of it. Never stop trying to be a good person.
Empathy also applies to groups of people. The best way to understand and have empathy for a group of people that you might not be a part of is to educate yourself. What is the history of this group, how have they been oppressed or made to feel "less-than," has the group you associate with had any part in the making of this other group feel the way they do?