16 Best Books on Understanding & Practicing Empathy

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Most of us, at one point or another, struggle to feel the way someone else is feeling, to understand why they make their choices. One way that we can strengthen this understanding is to work hard to understand empathy—feeling what someone else is going through. 

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We are often exposed to people whose backgrounds are so different from our own that we struggle to find our common ground. Books like Being Mortal by Atul Gawande allow us to look for the deepest things that we have in common with others.

These books can also connect us at the surface level and with the unusual elements of each other’s choices and lives. Reading books about the science and art behind empathy can deepen our clarity and promote the practice of it.

Consider these options, whether you want to empathize yourself or share empathy with children.

Books on Empathy for Adults

Many modern books on empathy combine neuroscience and psychological insight with reporting. The variety of sources can make for a great read that also inspires you to greater empathy.

1. Mindsight: Transform Your Brain with the New Science of Empathy by Daniel J. Siegel

Mindsight explores Dr. Siegel’s experiences of psychotherapy and neuroscience. He shares insights into how what we pay attention to and focus on can literally change our brains.

This book will be encouraging to anyone who has felt like their brain is static and that empathy is something you're born with or without. Learning more about the fascinating world of how brains work can give us hope for growing and changing as human beings.

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2. The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life's Most Essential Skill by Karla McLaren

The Art of Empathy views empathy as a skill, not an innate talent that you either have or do not have. By drawing on both spiritual/faith practices and psychology, McLaren focuses on how empathy has a positive impact on the lives of those who practice it. She expands beyond the definition of “feeling what others feel.”

Her exploration of emotional intelligence will have you relating to both others and yourself better in the long term.

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3. The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

While The Empathy Exams is not focused on research, Leslie Jamison explores how empathy emerges in a variety of circumstances through her creative nonfiction reporting and personal essays.

Beginning with her work as a medical patient actress, she delves deep into how we share and understand each other’s pain. She recognizes the unique and the universal in each person she gets to know.

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4. Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child By Child by Mary Gordon

Roots of Empathy explores the core of a program by the same name, which aims to reduce bullying and other antisocial behaviors at the source. The goal of these empathy lessons is to help children cultivate their social and emotional intelligence early on.

With these resources, they can approach social situations without fear or poor behavior that harms those around them. The results have been impressive around the world, and this book gives you the tools to share similar lessons with the children in your own life.

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5. Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman

Emotional Intelligence explores how one’s capacity for social and emotional competencies can be more predictive of life satisfaction than a traditional high IQ.

Examples in the book help show the five aspects of emotional intelligence and how they can be cultivated in everyday life.

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6. Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership by Michael Ventura

Applied Empathy is a great option for those who are fans of books about start-up companies or business strategy. This text puts empathy in the lens of how one reaches a market effectively.

Even if you aren’t very interested in the more touchy-feely aspects of empathy, having a strong connection to others will help you succeed in business. Share this with those in your life who may value a business-focused approach to empathy.

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7. Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It by Roman Krznaric

In addition to many familiar insights about empathy, Krznaric gets at an interesting concept. He suggests that being pro-social and empathetic is a way to experience the world more deeply. He sees it as a form of “adventuring” into what can make life both difficult and most rewarding.

Use Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It as a toolkit of ways to make empathy your first instinct and part of your daily interactions with those around you.

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8. I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) by Brené Brown

Brené Brown is well known for her work on helping people dare to be vulnerable, and I Thought it Was Just Me helps us understand that our pain and struggles aren’t isolating.

They make us more connected to humanity, and this connection can be a source of powerful empathy.

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Children’s Books on Empathy

Children grow and learn so much from the stories in their books. Books about those who think and act differently can be key to establishing their ability to empathize with someone else’s joy and pain.

9. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña

Last Stop on Market Street shows a child comparing himself to others unfavorably and learning from his grandmother how to feel for those around him.

In their simple bus journey, they discuss some of the deep things in life, connecting to others and realizing how valuable family can be to understanding the world.

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10. Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts

Learning not to go with the crowd, even when you really want to, is the core of Those Shoes. Children who already have a lot in life will be connected to the desire to belong shown in this book, and children will empathize if they’ve also had to focus on needs rather than wants.

The book is also a gentle reminder of how much our words impact each other, a lesson many children must learn over and over.

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11. You, Me, and Empathy by Jayneen Sanders

This empathy primer shows children what the word means and gives them a character to root for, Quinn, as they go through the process of understanding.

You, Me, and Empathy is sure to start a conversation where children can apply the lessons about empathy to their interactions with teachers, siblings, or others in their lives.

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12. Save Me a Seat by Gita Varadarajan and Sarah Weeks

Save Me a Seat shows two children getting to know each other authentically and teaming up, forming a friendship. It isn’t a picture book, but it’s still accessible for children.

It can be especially helpful for having a conversation about making new friends with diverse backgrounds in your child’s school.

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13. Chocolate Milk, Por Favor! Celebrating Diversity With Empathy by Maria Dismondy

One hard barrier for children to cross when first encountered is linguistic diversity. If they can’t speak the same language, it can be hard to form a friendship. Chocolate Milk, Por Favor! shows that compassion and empathy can conquer a language barrier.

A young boy’s first day in school is greeted with connection and kindness. If you and your child will be living or traveling in a linguistically diverse area, this could be a very helpful book for taking a positive and encouraging approach to new languages.

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14. I Am Human: A Book of Empathy by Susan Verde

Connecting over one’s shared humanity seems abstract until you and your child explore this richly illustrated and kind-hearted book. I Am Human allows you to see the many things that connect us, from how we make mistakes to how we deserve and offer kindness to others.

When we have established baseline connections to others, it’s much easier to make the effort to be empathetic even with people who have surface-level differences from us.

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15. The Monster Who Lost His Mean by Tiffany Strelitz Haber

For fans of fantastical creatures and funny stories, this helpful book about identity and being kind is a great read.

The Monster Who Lost His Mean may seem like a silly romp about a monster who doesn’t know who he is when he isn’t mean anymore but it’s also a journey that many children take whenever they make a transition to behaving in a new, better way.

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16. Listening With My Heart by Gabi Garcia

Dealing with disappointment and maintaining a positive self-image are two deeply important themes that emerge in Listening with My Heart. Esperanza learns how to think positively about herself, exercising self-compassion, even when things don’t go her way.

Children who are unusually hard on themselves or don’t take failure in stride may appreciate the lessons and language of this beautiful and poignant book.

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Empathizing Through Reading 

Our reading habits can shape the ways we look at the world. If you’ve recently been reading books about empathy, you’re more likely to identify moments in your day to show it. 

When you know someone who is going through something tough, your empathy may be tested, but life-changing books like these can help you find the words to say in a sympathy message or aid you in offering condolences that come across as heartfelt. 

The more we understand each other, the more our world becomes a caring and loving place.

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