How easy do you find it to understand and share in the feelings of other people?
The truth is that we are all hardwired for empathy. But the extent to which you can relate to other people’s emotions lies on a spectrum.
If someone lacks empathy, you will probably notice some of the following 12 traits in them…
1) They’re dismissive of other people’s feelings, thoughts and opinions
One of the main characteristics of people who lack empathy is their inability to see someone else’s side of things.
Ultimately, they cannot put themselves in your shoes.
They cannot imagine what it would be like to go through someone else’s struggles or feel someone else’s upsets.
Without this perspective, they find it very hard to comprehend other perspectives. So you will probably notice that they don’t easily entertain others’ thoughts, feelings, ideas, etc.
Rather than consider someone else’s unique or different way of being, they are dismissive of anything that differs from their take on things.
That can lead to increased conflict, as we’ll see next.
2) They’re capable of being stubborn and argumentative
The trouble with not being able to consider differences is that you’re more prone to assuming you are right.
‘My way of the highway’ types of people may be lacking in empathy.
Incredibly headstrong people can’t objectively take in other information in order to critique their own stance on something.
So they vehemently fight their corner, unable to see how they could be wrong.
Rather than try to find common ground or a compromise, they refuse to back down.
3) They’re oblivious to people’s cues and signals
So much of how we communicate with one another is non-verbal.
Everything from our voice, microexpressions, and body language speaks volumes.
For example, your partner may say that they’re “fine”, but you can tell they’re mad at you.
It is clear through their frosty tone and their withdrawn demeanor.
So rather than carry on as if everything is okay, you try to get to the bottom of what’s really going on.
Many of us are experts at intuitively reading the signals people constantly give out. That way, we can respond in the best way.
But those who struggle with empathy miss so many of these cues. That’s one of the reasons why they don’t always know how to behave properly.
4) They’re inappropriate and often do or say the wrong things
Empathy helps us to live more harmoniously in social groups.
When someone frequently rubs others up the wrong way, they may be lacking in empathy.
That’s because, as we just mentioned, they can’t always read the correct signals people are giving out.
Without that useful skill, they can find that they put their foot in their mouth more often than not.
Let’s face it, we’ve all said or done the wrong thing at some point.
It may have even dawned on you soon afterward that wasn’t the smartest choice. But when someone has very little empathy, it may never dawn on them.
Let me give you an example.
After a particularly nasty breakup many years ago, my life was turned upside down. I had to move home, give up a job I loved, and start a worse job elsewhere.
My dad (who sadly does lack empathy) didn’t seem to get the magnitude of the upheaval.
Whilst my mom was full of sympathy and support, my dad acted as if nothing was happening.
After a visit to see them where I had tearfully explained what was going on, the best my dad could say as I left was: “Enjoy your new job!”
He had completely missed the point and was oblivious to the core emotions I was going through. That’s why he said the wrong thing.
5) They’re ignorant of other people’s struggles and so they may seem cold and uncaring
A misunderstanding of emotions isn’t the only reason people who lack empathy can miss the point.
Sometimes they just don’t see what the big deal is. So when faced with other people’s pain, they downplay it.
Going back to the example above, I don’t think my dad has ever felt heartbreak. He also seems to process sadness in a very different way.
So in his mind, I was being a little melodramatic. Although he didn’t directly say it, he most likely felt that I was being too sensitive about everything.
The problem is that he was incapable of imagining circumstances he hadn’t been in.
Being dumped, losing his home, having to leave his job — none of these things had happened to him. And even if they had, he would have reacted differently.
So he couldn’t share in the feelings they brought up for me. In his mind, the emotions I was experiencing were invalid.
6) They’re self-centered about how their actions affect others
When you’re incapable of appreciating other people’s feelings or thoughts, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a certain amount of selfishness creeps in.
They may be oblivious to the fact that what they say and do has an impact on other people.
They choose to suit themselves and always act in their own best interest and see nothing wrong with this approach.
It’s not that they are intentionally disregarding others, it’s more that it doesn’t even occur to them to act differently.
7) They’re unforgiving of mistakes and errors
Have you ever messed up?
Yes, of course you have. All of us have.
But people who lack empathy don’t seem to remember that to err is human.
Instead, they focus on the mistake itself, rather than the fact that we are all capable of getting it wrong.
This may give them a holier-than-thou attitude and approach toward others.
They are judgemental and critical when it comes to pointing out other people’s flaws. They cannot imagine that they would ever find themselves in the same situation.
They often ignore other factors that may have played a part in things. Which can lead to the next thing on our list.
8) They victim-blame
If someone finds themselves homeless and on the streets, they probably did something really bad to end up there.
If someone is unemployed and struggling to find work, it’s probably because they’re fundamentally lazy.
If someone was attacked late at night, they shouldn’t have been walking home alone at that time.
When someone is quick to make assumptions and blame the victim, they are showing a lack of empathy.
Rather than feel concern, pity, or sympathy, they react as though every bit of misfortune is the fault of the individual.
9) They’re impatient or overly demanding
I admit that patience is something I can struggle with.
But how is patience linked to empathy?
Well, we actually display our empathy when we extend our patience to someone.
Patience is in essence about tolerance. It’s about allowing people to be themselves, even when that is very different from you or something you disagree with.
I hate to wait around for others and can quickly get irritable when someone doesn’t do things how I would do them.
That’s a sign of my intolerance (whether I like to admit it or not).
If someone lacks empathy they are generally far less tolerant of others.
10) They’re bad-tempered
Empathy doesn’t just help us relate better to others. It also involves how well we understand ourselves.
So people who lack empathy often struggle to get to grips with their own emotions too.
Without that self-awareness, it can mean they find it harder to regulate their feelings.
As a consequence, keeping a lid on extreme emotions can be harder for them.
Perhaps they are quick to snap or overreact. They may even fly into ill-tempered rages when things don’t go their way.
11) They’re bad listeners
Actively listening to others is essential to learning empathy.
If we want to understand what makes someone tick, we need to hear them. But listening effectively is a skill many of us fall down on.
It demands that we go beyond the words someone speaks in order to tap into the intent and deeper meaning behind them.
That isn’t easy for someone who has very little empathy.
Even when they hear what’s being said, they aren’t capable of grasping the more complex emotions or thoughts that lie beneath.
12) They struggle in their relationships
We’ve just cataloged a long list of ways in which people lacking in empathy can struggle to connect with other people.
So it’s probably unsurprising that relationships can feel harder for them.
Communication is a particularly troublesome area.
They may develop strained family relationships or struggle to keep hold of friends and lovers. They may have a long history of fallouts, all of which they blame on others.
As a consequence, they may be more withdrawn and have few close connections.
There are lots of reasons why people lack empathy
I know firsthand from growing up around a lack of empathy that it doesn’t necessarily make someone a bad person.
It can be caused by a multitude of things from personality disorders and autism, to a general lack of awareness and not having learned empathy.
Because as well as being a natural characteristic, it is also a skill we pick up. That means we can always improve and better hone our empathy.