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How to Talk to Someone with Empathy—and What to Avoid!

Have you ever felt helpless when a friend or spouse shared their feelings? Not knowing what to say or do is uncomfortable. Perhaps you can relate. It's easy to find ourselves unprepared or in awkward situations when someone expresses intense emotions.

Empathy fills that dead zone with caring and empathetic responses to help the person feel heard and help YOU be confident in any conversation.

The ability to empathize is a vital EQ skill that can be learned.

Read about a story illustrating a lack of empathy and low self-awareness in a real-life situation. Then, get the tools to never be caught off guard again!

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
A heart symbolizing the need we all have to connect

Empathy Doesn't Just Happen—It's a Skill  that Requires Emotional Literacy

A colleague shared the following experience with me:

"During a hectic and stressful time, I darted into a grocery store for a 'quick stop' and bumped into a friend. She looked burdened so I asked her what was wrong. Immediately, she began venting about an argument she had with her husband that morning and a litany of relationship problems. I was stunned and totally unprepared for the tidal wave of emotions and words. Who had time for a long conversation?—I certainly didn't, but I asked and felt obligated to listen.

I stood there asking myself repeatedly, "Why did I even ask!?"

Then, my friend's expression turned to a sad withdrawal. She abruptly concluded and said goodbye; she had felt my reticence. Afterward, I lamented that I hadn't shown her more empathy."

The above situation didn’t happen because the friend was insensitive or uncaring. The person admitted to me that she wanted to support her friend, but it takes more than just good intentions. Good intentions backfire if we’re overwhelmed or rushed ourselves, or our responses aren’t authentic because of competing needs. In the above scenario, my colleague had several competing needs: she was short on time and already stressed herself.

The Key to Empathetic Responses

If you desire to connect empathetically with others, you need empathy for yourself FIRST!

As exemplified by the woman's experience above, it's very easy to be polite by inquiring about someone or volunteering to listen when we simply don't have the bandwidth. Sometimes we even ask a caring question when we're too burdened with our own challenges to be present.

Not wanting to listen doesn't make us heartless; it makes us human.

And this woman was being really hard on herself for the lack of responsiveness to her friend, which means that it was time to turn empathy toward herself.

Empathy is not just for others.

A natural tendency is to pretend to listen like my colleague. Whenever we pretend to listen, there's a part of us that doesn't want to be there. Check in with yourself about what might be competing with your desire to empathize. If it can be postponed, you may be able to stay present. However, sometimes, you'll need to meet your own needs before you're able to empathize with someone else.

It's also common to minimize our own or another person’s emotional experience instead of displaying true empathy. When we minimize, it's often because we're uncomfortable with that emotion or we don't believe it has value based on the circumstances. For instance, if I have a friend struggling with a serious illness, I may minimize my own experience of a migraine headache since it's not life-threatening.

Learning the pitfalls will help you become better prepared to respond compassionately and avoid showing a lack of empathy.

Characteristics of an Empathetic Response: How to Show Empathy

So what does empathetic mean? How do we communicate empathy to someone?

At its most basic meaning, empathy and empathizing mean to seek to understand the experience and feelings of another person.

And how do you know when you're genuinely empathizing? Let's begin by exploring briefly the different kinds of empathy.

There are three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. All three have slightly different uses, but all convey that you understand what the person is feeling and that you want to create a safe space for them to work through their problem. When giving empathetic statements, there are certain essential keys and they depend on what empathy type you're expressing.

Cliff Notes for the Three Kinds of Empathy

Let's review the different kinds of empathy. Each situation requires a little different kind of empathetic response.

Cognitive Empathy

  • What it is: A conscious, rational way to recognize and understand another's emotional state. This type is also known as "perspective-taking."
  • Often effective for: Intellectual discussions, workplace, and business and professional situations.

Emotional Empathy

  • What it is: An ability to share and recognize the feelings of others. At times, emotions can be a felt body sense.
  • Often effective for: Close relationships like marriage, family, or in careers that require deep personal connections, such as nursing.

A pediatric nurse caring for a little girl and showing true empathy

Compassionate Empathy (the ideal empathy)

  • What it is: The ability to recognize and feel for a person's situation and be moved to act, but without feeling bogged down.
  • Often effective for: Any relationship. This type of empathy is most effective and is a worthy goal to strive for in most situations. It's thoughtful, present, and action-oriented.

For hands-on empathy training, our workbook is an effective way to learn Empathy 101.

All three kinds of empathy aim to:

  • Focus on the other person, not yourself.
  • Help the person feel heard.
  • Create a connection.
  • Acknowledge the other person's point of view and learn more by asking clarifying questions (not giving advice!).
  • Increase understanding and dialogue.

THE RESULT: Utilizing empathetic responses leads to a better connection, emotional de-escalation, and a safe space for the other person to express their feelings.

Related article: 7 Habits of Highly Empathetic People

For a more comprehensive description, refer to Heartmanity's blog, "The Three Kinds of Empathy: Emotional, Cognitive, Compassionate."

Empathy in Action:   Empathetic Statements and Responses

What do empathetic statements sound like? What differs when we respond with empathy versus sympathy? Do you know the difference? When fine-tuning empathy, it helps to examine the application of each type of empathy, including what not to do and say!

Cognitive Empathetic Response

Scenario: A woman confides in her husband about a distressing work situation, worried about how it will play out. She is visibly shaken.

Ineffective Response: Her husband replies, "I'm sure it's not as bad as you say. You always do a good job. You’re making too big of a deal about it. Just email your boss, and he’ll take your side."

  • Why It's Ineffective: He used the feeling stoppers of minimizing and fixing. He diminished the nuances of his wife’s experience and dove right into his advice with little regard for her visible anxiousness.

Empathetic Response: He puts an arm around his wife, and says, "Sounds pretty stressful for you. I know how important being effective at your job is for you. What is most upsetting you?"
Father listening intently and empathizing with his teenage son

Emotional Empathetic Response

Scenario: An acquaintance just shared with you that she had recently experienced a devastating miscarriage.

Ineffective Response: “You poor thing! I'm so sorry this happened to you… but you’ll be able to get pregnant again. I had two miscarriages, and now I have two beautiful children.”

  • Why It's Ineffective: The response includes three feeling stoppers: pitying, fixing, and over-identifying. With strong emotions, it's an easy mistake to take on another's emotions and overreact or identify too closely with the person’s feelings, especially if you’ve had a similar experience.

Empathetic Response: "I'm deeply sorry for your loss; that must have been devastating. My heart goes out to you."

This reply holds genuine resonance with the person’s experience and mirrors back accurately what the person might feel with a loss.

Compassionate Empathetic Response

Scenario: Your son is visibly discouraged. When prompted, he explains to you that he did not get selected for the student council as president after working extremely hard on his campaign.

Ineffective Response: "I can't believe you didn't get selected! You were the best candidate by far!"

  • Why It's Ineffective: This response is too focused on the parent’s surprise and upset rather than the child’s disappointment. Instead of letting your child have the opportunity to process the letdown, the parent’s reaction eclipses the son’s experience.

Empathetic Response: With eye contact and loving support, you say, “You worked so hard and put your whole heart into that campaign. What a disappointment—gosh, that's gotta hurt!"

The opposite of compassion is to expect the person to feel differently than they do. When we lack compassion, most often, we are triggered by the person's vulnerability and use feeling stoppers that thwart true connection with the other person.

Learn how to empathize today!

A woman grocery shopping while on her smartphone

Empathy Requires Open-Mindfulness, Imagination, and Commitment

To be empathetic requires us to have not only kind-heartedness but also open-mindedness. What does this mean? It means that we keep our mind open without judgment and with curiosity. The tendency is to judge the way the person is expressing themselves or for our mind to fill up with our own beliefs and give advice.

When we do not detach from our own experience enough to step into another's shoes, our own emotions create static, which prevents us from being fully present. When we are preoccupied with our own emotions and fail to be present to the other person, an opportunity to create understanding and connection is lost. And without empathy, relationships can grow apart or even fracture.

Earlier, we mentioned the exchange of the two friends in the grocery store. This situation is an excellent example of how distance can come between friends. If the friend could have taken a moment to be present, compassionate empathy could have been given. A simple empathetic response might have uplifted the distressed woman helping her to calm while also providing a greater understanding between the two friends—but you have to know how to empathize and be prepared for the unexpected.

Other Possible Empathetic Responses

A possible response: "It is a tough time, isn't it?" And if she decided to engage her friend, she could have also added, "Sounds like your husband hurt your feelings, and you're not sure what to say. Is that right?" That would have provided her friend with active and nonjudgmental listening, thus creating space to address a painful situation.

To be fair, if the burdened woman had more self-awareness, she could have also recognized that she didn't feel like talking and simply said hello. Or acknowledged her need to talk but at a more opportune time. This self-awareness would have met both women's needs in the moment.

And this is why empathy requires commitment. It's a decision to be present and caring.

To give empathy effectively—to ourselves and others—we need to slow down and be more aware and present with our emotions.

And in the long run, it actually takes less time to extend compassion because speed is increased with authentic connection and trust. And we all need to feel heard and to have understanding and empathy.

Stop Expecting Yourself to Know How to Empathize!

Over the past couple of decades of teaching emotional intelligence and coaching people at the workplace and in personal relationships—most people “think” they know how to empathize, but don’t. Most everyone “thinks” they are empathizing when they are not.

For instance, many people say, "I'm so sorry you feel that way." However, who wants someone else to feel sorry for them? This is a form of pity or sympathy.

Empathy is no different than any other crucial tool. A builder can’t construct a house without a hammer and saw; a doctor can’t do heart surgery successfully without extensive learning; a programmer can’t program a website without skills.

Why do we think that we should be able to empathize without learning and practicing the science and art of empathy?

The truth is—we can’t!

If you would like an empathy check-up to be sure you have this vital skill honed, check out our popular workbook, "Real Empathy, Real Solutions: 4 Keys for Unlocking the Power of Empathy!

And if you really want to dig in and increase your self-awareness and emotional intelligence, check out our Emotional Intelligence online course.

Yes! I want to increase self-awareness

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence CoachJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity founder and an emotional intelligence expert. She has two decades of EQ experience and is the author of emotional intelligence training and courses. As an emotional fitness coach, Jennifer teaches EQ skills, brain science hacks, and a comprehensive approach that gets results. She is happily married and the mother of three incredible grown children.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence, How to Build Empathy

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