Some mechanical engineers spend their time disassembling machines to see how they were originally put together. You can use a similar technique to develop empathy, by working backward from the observable effects of emotion to the emotion itself.
Think of someone you'd like to understand—your enigmatic boss, your distant mother, the romantic interest who may or may not return your affections. Remember a recent interaction you had with this person—especially one that left you baffled as to how they were really feeling. Now imitate, as closely as you can, the physical posture, facial expression, exact words, and vocal inflection they used during that encounter. Notice what emotions arise within you.
What you feel will probably be very close to whatever the other person was going through. For example, when I "reverse engineer" the behavior of people I experience as critical or aloof, I usually find myself flooded with feelings of shyness, shame, or fear. It's a lesson that has saved me no end of worry and defensiveness.
I train life coaches to use reverse engineering in real time, by subtly matching clients' body language, vocal tone, even breathing rate. It's so effective that clients often think the coach must be psychic—how else could anyone "get them" so quickly and completely? Elementary, my dear Watson. The body shapes itself in response to emotion, and shaping one's own body to match someone else's is a quick ticket to empathy.
Exercise 3: Shape-Shifting
In folklore, shape-shifters are beings with the ability to become anyone or anything. As a child, I was fascinated by this concept, and used to pretend that I could instantaneously switch places with other people, animals, even inanimate objects. What if I woke up one morning in the body—and the life—of my best friend, or a bank robber, or the president? What if, like Kafka's fictional Gregor, I suddenly became a cockroach? (You could find people who think I've actually done this.) My point is, what would it feel like to be them? How would I cope? What would I do next?
I still play this game, especially in public places. I recommend you try it, soon. See that strange man in the orange polyester suit putting 37 packets of sweetener into his extra-grande mochaccino with soy milk? What if—zap!—you suddenly switched bodies with him? What would it be like to wear that suit, that face, that physique? What impulse would lead to sugaring a cup of coffee like that, let alone drinking it?
I can feel this shape-shifting developing my empathy. It gives my heart a stretch, makes me entertain unfamiliar thoughts and feelings, leaves me with the sensation that I've completed a stomp session on an emotional StairMaster. And if I want to ramp up my workout, it's just a short hop to some practices that work even better, and have been tested for centuries.