There was an episode of Star Trek (the Original Series) that kinda ruined my understanding of what being empathic meant. It featured The Trio in a very low budget stage along with Beautiful Protagonist who was mute, dramatic, and absorbed pain. McCoy gets nearly killed, Empath absorbs the damage like a walking Silly Putty made of Bactine and All Learn a valuable lesson.
(To be fair, this is considered on of the top 10 episodes of the series, but i’ll also add that one of the episode features a phaser ricocheting, so take that for what it’s worth.)
The point is that being empathetic doesn’t mean that you should be a damage sponge, either physical or emotional. What i find being empathetic means is basically, putting oneself in the place of someone else and being aware of their point of view and experiences. That can mean talking to them, learning from them, and trying as best you can to understand them.
Adam Savage once said that the best response you can give to someone who says they do something that sounds silly or trivial is “That sounds really hard.” Inevitably, they’ll tell some hair raising horror story that will clue you in to “Yes, yes it is.” That’s being empathetic. That’s being invited to understand someone else’s perspective and gain a different view. That view can make A LOT of things suddenly a lot clearer for you, and can raise up things that you may never have thought of.
Presuming that you have complete understanding means that you haven’t sufficiently studied it. There’s always something you missed and other people can be more than helpful in pointing that out if you let them. That’s what empathy lets you see. That’s why it’s so damn important.
Mind you, i’ve found that folk who are the most extroverted tend to miss this detail. From personal experience, a lot of introverts understand this at a near instinctual level. That’s because introverts spend most of their time with others listening, and focused on the other person (It’s one of the reasons that being around others, particularly a lot of others, can be so damn draining. Try listening to every conversation going on in a crowded room. That’s what i find myself doing, and it’s not super fun.)
So, yeah, basically, don’t be a self centered clown and spending a few brain-cells on the folk you deal with will help you out tremendously.