• There are no suggestions because the search field is empty.

The Art of Empathy: How to Show Empathy Without Saying Sorry

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It is a vital aspect of emotional intelligence (EQ) that helps build relationships, improve communication, and foster understanding. However, being empathetic requires more than just saying sorry, even though that expression is a go-to for many people. Instead, empathy involves active listening, understanding emotions, and responding with care and compassion.

Let’s discuss how to show empathy without saying you're sorry and look at a few practical tips to help you improve your empathy skills.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

A young man empathizing with an upset friend.You’d probably agree that in today's world, there is an increasing need for people to become more empathetic toward one another. This EQ skill can help us build more respectful and loving relationships, reduce conflicts, and make the world a better place.

Yet, empathy is much more complex and challenging than most people realize. In fact, you might even be asking yourself, “Why can't I empathize?” You’ve tried, but you freeze or clumsily say something inappropriate. If you are asking that question, there are several common obstacles to empathizing.

Related reading: “What Is Empathy and Why Is It Important?”

Yes, I want to learn to be more empathetic!

Common Obstacles to Empathizing

The first obstacle to empathizing is not having a friendly internal environment for our own emotions. Through my experience, while teaching emotional intelligence to hundreds over the years, many people minimize or stuff their feelings. They didn’t learn how to identify, regulate and process emotions growing up, so it’s easier to shut themselves off from emotions altogether and avoid feeling painful experiences. If you are emotionally numb, you’ll have difficulty relating to another’s feelings, let alone trying to empathize.

Many people are also uncomfortable with other people’s emotions, particularly emotions such as sadness, grief, or anger. They can trigger our unresolved emotional pain. This personal discomfort is often one of the reasons we resort to “I’m sorry.” And when we’re uncomfortable with emotional expression, the static within ourselves can interfere with our ability to empathize. Some clients have described it as a wall going up that prevents them from hearing what the other person is saying.

When we’re uncomfortable with others’ emotions, we also tend to view emotions as a problem to be fixed—our problem—like we’re solving a mathematical equation with only one answer. 1+1 = FIX. And in so doing, we cut empathy off at the knees resulting in the person feeling unheard or misunderstood.

Sometimes, we seek to fix the person’s problem and make them feel better emotionally. But even if we think we know how to help them feel better, we need to release our attachment to get to a solution.

And lastly, a third common obstacle to empathy is judging the person speaking or how they express themselves. This judgment interferes with being present and blocks understanding and true connection.

Related reading:Life Hacks to Replace Feeling Stuffers with Emotional Intelligence.”

Understanding the Art of Empathy: Keys to Cultivate Your Empathy Skills

The art of empathy is the art of paying attention. As psychologist Williams James so aptly said long ago, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” This quote could also be said of empathy: how well we attend to the other person will determine the quality of our responses. We must pay attention to be able to empathize.

Empathy is more about being present than helping. Developing empathy takes practice and requires honing in on a particular set of skills. To tune into another person’s emotional state means emptying our agenda and responding in a way that helps the person feel heard. Below are some key ingredients.

Empathy is key. Key Ingredient 1: Be fully present

Our first key action is to empty ourselves. To make a choice as William James referenced above: to agree to attend. 

Actor with face cards-108196338_CompressedEmpathy requires us to
S L O W  D O W N, and commit to being present to the other person; to be attentive and give our FULL attention.

This action alone is a monumental feat that asks a lot of us, especially given our distraction era.

Emotions have many faces. We can learn to understand, mirror, and empathize with all variations regardless of whether a person is happy, excited, afraid, disgusted, angry, or sad—or the many other peaks and valleys of the emotional terrain.

To empathize means to remain open and compassionate without judging, analyzing, checking our phone, or mentally rehearsing what we will say next. Paying attention is critical to truly connecting with other human beings!

Empathy is key. Key Ingredient 2: Listen actively and attentively.

The second key to showing empathy is to listen actively. However, this kind of listening can be easily drowned out if the listener tries to figure out what to say in response to the person talking. Attentive listening requires us to be mindful, noticing their word choices, tone of voice, and body language so we can mirror them effectively.

When someone is speaking, refrain from interrupting, and let them finish their thoughts. Pay close attention to their posture, facial expressions, and the volume and speed of their words. Make direct, soft eye contact that signals the person you’re interested but not judging them.

Once they’ve finished talking, summarize what they have said to ensure you’ve understood their message accurately. By taking the time to listen actively, you show others that you value their thoughts and feelings.

Empathy is key. Key Ingredient 3: Put yourself in the other person's shoes.

Seeking to understand is a prerequisite for empathy. To show empathy, you need to try to understand the other person's perspective, not necessarily compare their experience to yours.

Set aside your own thoughts. Put yourself in their shoes. How might they feel? What are the contributing circumstances, people, relationships, history, and context impacting the person’s feelings and perception of their experience? Try to see the situation from their point of view. Consider how you would feel if you were them, not you.

For instance, if you are an extrovert and the person talking is an introvert, how they experience a situation might differ dramatically from you. An introvert may feel hurt because they were talked over by their spouse. Or maybe they felt someone didn’t care because they cut them off in a meeting, blurting out an idea before the introvert could gather their thoughts. These interactions might not affect you in the same way as an extrovert. While they’re sharing the experience, you might find yourself thinking, “Why don’t they just speak up for themselves.” Or “Why do they let people treat them this way?!”

Each person is unique and interacts with life differently. Suspend judgment and imagine what their experience might be like. Get curious and make no assumptions.

Related reading: Why Everyone Needs Empathy and Self-Compassion—Especially Now!”

A loving couple talking on the porch, attentively listening and empathizing with one another.

Empathy is key. Key Ingredient 4: Acknowledge and validate their feelings.

Acknowledge and validate what they are feeling. Help them to see you care about their experiences. For example, "It looks like that situation really upset you." You can also paraphrase their words to let them know you are listening. "Sounds like when FILL IN THE BLANK happened, you were frustrated."

One way to show empathy is to reflect the person's emotions to them. For example, if somebody tells you they’re sad, you could say, “It sounds like you’re feeling really down right now.” Or if somebody is frustrated about something that happened at work, a possible response might be, “I can see how that could be frustrating” or “It makes sense that you’d feel upset about that.” Find a response that you can get behind. Don’t say their reaction makes sense to you if it doesn’t. In that case, you might say instead, “I can’t imagine how much that must have hurt!” Be genuine.

The above responses show you’re tuned in and that you care about how they’re feeling even if you might feel differently. By validating their feelings, you show them that their emotions matter to you and empathize with what they are going through.

People want to be heard, seen, and understood—it is a human need!

Deep Dive:The Three Kinds of Empathy: Emotional, Cognitive, and Compassionate.”

Empathy is key. Key Ingredient 5: Practice self-reflection and self-empathy.

Self-reflection is a vital aspect of developing empathy. You must be able to understand your own emotions and how they affect your responses to others. Take time daily to reflect on how you interact—or react—in certain situations, and ask yourself what were you feeling and how did your inner world influence your responses. How could you have listened better to yourself or empathized more sincerely?

Finally, empathy starts with self-compassion. Remember, empathy is not just about being there for others but is also about being kind to yourself. If you can’t show yourself empathy, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to show it to others.

Empathy is a fundamental aspect of human connection—essential for building healthy and happy relationships. As a vital emotional intelligence skill, it’s worth devoting time, attention, and focus to practice.

By showing empathy without saying sorry, you will connect with people, especially those you love, on a deeper, more authentic level. The art of empathetic communication will cultivate a happier, more fulfilling life. 

To guide you and help you better understand emotions and emotional triggers, here's an emotional atlas developed by Dr. Paul Ekman and inspired by the Dalai Lama to assist people in navigating the wide vistas of emotional intelligence.

Hungry for More? Ready for Practice?

The best way to strengthen your empathy is to practice! If you want to deepen your understanding with targeted exercises designed to help you utilize your emotional intelligence, download our self-study, 37-page workbook, Real Empathy, Real Solutions.

Yes, I want to learn to be more empathetic!

And if you’d like personalized coaching support, we’re here to help! Reach out to Heartmanity at support@heartmanity.com. Transforming lives and relationships IS our business!

Like the article? Help us spread the word and share it!

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

Free Newsletter!

Featured Online Courses

Online Course - Emotional Fitness for the 21st Century 4 Keys to Unlocking the Power of Empathy