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

Recently, someone shared the following experience with me:

“During a hectic and stressful time, I bumped into a friend at a coffee shop. She looked almost as stressed out as I felt, so I asked her what was wrong. Immediately, she began venting about an argument she just had with her husband. I tried to listen, but my mind was stuck on my own problems. As soon as I swung my attention back to her, I noticed that her expression had gone from stressed to withdrawn and angry. She stopped making eye contact and quickly said good-bye. I had really stepped in it. I had not shown my good friend the empathy she deserved. How embarrassing!”

The above situation didn’t happen because the friend was insensitive or uncaring. The friend admitted to me that she truly wanted to be there for her, but it takes more than just good intentions. Good intentions can backfire if we’re overwhelmed ourselves or our responses aren’t authentic with appropriate words or actions.

In other words, if you desire to connect and show you care, you need the skill of empathy.A heart symbolizing the need we all have to connectAs exemplified by the above situation, it's very easy to react. Sometimes we even ask a caring question when we really don't have the time to listen or we're too burdened with our own challenges to be present. Another natural tendency is to use feeling stoppers, such as pretending to listen or minimizing a person’s experience instead of displaying genuine empathy. Learning the pitfalls—and what to do differently—will help you become better prepared to respond compassionately and avoid showing a lack of empathy.

Characteristics of an Empathetic Response

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.

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: Workplace and business 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

Compassionate Empathy: (This is 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.

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 of the three kinds of empathy, which is not included in this blog, go here.

Real-Life Examples of Empathy in Action

When fine-tuning empathy, it helps to examine the application of each type of empathy, including what not to do and say!

Cognitive 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?"

Emotional 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 over-react 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 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!"

Learn how to empathize today!

Father empathizing with his son

Our Own Emotions Create Static, which Prevents Us from Being 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.

At the beginning, we mentioned the exchange of two friends in a coffee shop. This situation is an excellent example of how distancing can happen in friendship. Had this woman taken a moment to be more present, her friend could have felt compassion that she so needed at that moment. 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.

The friend could have responded: "It sounds like your husband hurt your feelings, and you're unsure what to say to him. Is that right?" That would have provided her friend with active and nonjudgmental listening, thus creating space to address a painful situation. To give empathy, we need to slow down and be more present to ourselves and each other.
A woman showing empathy and support to a friend

Stop Expecting Yourself to Know How

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

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 newly released workbook, "Real Empathy, Real Solutions: 4 Keys for Unlocking the Power of Empathy!

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Fitness TrainerJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Fitness Trainer
Jennifer’s passion is to help people create thriving relationships first with themselves, and then with each other. She teaches emotional intelligence skills and a proven step-by-step process that removes the obstacles to growth, loving connection, and communication. Her popular One Year Makeover and Return to Serenity programs provide a personalized approach to transformation. Her understanding of brain science strategically reshapes a person’s pain into power while restoring inner peace and well-being through a fun and remarkable learning experience. Jennifer is happily married to her beloved husband of 39 years and is the mother of three grown children.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence, How to Build Empathy