In the early stages of friendship, it can be easy to base your relationship on simple companionship and fun. For a deeper, more meaningful emotional bond, however, you need a firm grasp on empathy. Empathy in a friendship will help you to get each other through difficult times as well as keep each other in check. At the same time, learning to deepen your empathetic understanding of a friend can help you deepen your understanding of each other.
Empathy vs. Advice
Learn to avoid giving advice or trying to fix a friend's problems when she comes to you merely wanting empathy. Offer empathy as your "default mode" and refrain from offering advice and solutions unless your friend asks you directly. She may use the word “advice” or ask questions like, “What do you think I should do?” Otherwise, assume that what she's looking for is empathy. Remember that empathy helps people through troubling and difficult situations by helping them feel they don't have to face their pain alone. Help her know that her feelings are normal and understandable to others. This will empower her to sort through her emotions maturely and make her own decisions about what to do.
Learn to express your empathy by echoing your friend's feelings back to him in your own words. This exercise not only gives voice to the empathy you feel, it will help you to grow stronger empathy for him. Paraphrase what he's saying to you about his feelings, but also help him to become aware of feelings he may be struggling to name. In volatile situations, help him to avoid rash actions by keeping him focused on understanding and processing his feelings rather than focusing outward on people who he feels have wronged him.
Use your imagination to help you empathize more fully and correctly. Put yourself in your friend's shoes and imagine how she would feel and think in the situations she's facing in her life. Full empathy requires not only imagining the events of the moment, but trying to imagine how it would feel to be her in terms of how her life experiences have influenced her. This requires understanding how your own life experiences have influenced you and how your emotional makeup is different from hers. You will never be able to fully understand another person's experience, but the more details and differences you can consider, the stronger your empathy will be.
Respect the limitations of your empathy. Know that you may not always understand what a friend feels and may need to listen with an open mind in situations where his feelings are confusing to you. Ask questions, especially at times when your attempts to empathize seem to be frustrating him more than helping. Recognize that it's also his responsibility to help bridge the gap when the two of you don't understand each other.