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Why Empathy Is Essential to Learn and How to Be Empathetic!

Empathy is an essential skill for deepening our connections with others, but most of our attempts at empathy fall into one of three traps: blocking, fixing, or sympathizing.

Our best intentions are not enough to ensure our loved ones feel heard and understood. We need to develop—and master—the ability to empathize and show compassion for others. Developing empathy requires practicing and applying critical emotional intelligence skills to validate and comfort our loved ones in their time of need.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Mom empathizing with her daughter on the porchThe truth is, empathy is more difficult than most people think. Yet, many people think they are empathizing even though they are not. So, let's explore what empathy is first and then talk about some common mistakes people make. Trust me, it's worth the effort to master empathy and be able to effectively apply what you’ve learned for more fulfilling and connected relationships.

What Is Empathy?

Did you know that there is more than one type of empathy? When we talk about empathy, we’re talking about compassionate empathy. The purpose of compassionate empathy is:

  • Compassionate empathy allows us to see the world as another person sees it and genuinely understand their feelings. The result is a deeper emotional connection with the people we care about most.

  • Focusing on the other person. When expressing empathy, you must suspend judgment to stay present with the other person. Listen for feelings that they may not even be in touch with yet. Sometimes, we must read between the lines or get underneath to discern what they are attempting to say.

  • De-escalates conflict and strong emotions. Compassionate empathy creates a safe space for the other person to be present with their emotions. As a result, you may notice a de-escalation of their emotions, a diffusion of emotional intensity, or a decrease in conflict. If their feelings intensify, however, it is a sure sign that you have used a feeling stuffer, such as fixing, instead of engaging in compassionate empathy.

Doctor talking and empathizing with a little girlThe 3 Types of Empathy

Empathy comes from an old German word, Einfühlung, meaning “feeling in.” Just as there are many ways to feel, there are also many ways to express empathy.

Not all empathy is considered compassionate empathy. There are three types of empathy, and compassionate empathy is only one of them. For a quick reference, here are the three types of empathy:

1.  Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy is feeling along with the other person, meaning you share their physical and emotional sensations. It can result in a lack of healthy boundaries or become overwhelming. 

2.  Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy is knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. This type of empathy is typically more emotionally removed and more intellectual because you’re conceptualizing another person’s experience.

3.  Compassionate Empathy

Compassionate empathy takes the best parts of emotional and cognitive empathy and blends them, responding to the whole person. We understand the other person’s predicament and emotions, allowing us to respond to them without taking on their emotions, becoming overwhelmed, or needing to fix anything. We are fully present and respond compassionately without expectations. 

Husband holding his wife and expressing empathy for her sadness.What Empathy Isn't!     ...Introducing Feeling Stuffers

It can be challenging to know how to respond to others’ emotional needs. Unfortunately, this often means that we react with unhelpful feeling stuffers instead of expressing empathy.

If our responses are well-intentioned, we might think we are showing empathy when we are actually seeking to shut down emotions. So, in reality, we’re not empathizing; we’re protecting ourselves from feeling something uncomfortable. Even if our responses come from a place of love, feeling stuffers often make the recipient feel dismissed and unheard.

Which of these feeling stuffers have you used? How did your loved one respond?

    • Sympathy fulfills a social function or cultural norm without necessarily considering whether or not it is helpful. For example, it may help us feel satisfied that we’ve responded the way we were “supposed” to, but it’s a band-aid that likely will not do anything to help the other person feel heard or ease strong emotions.
    • Pity. Empathy asks you to compassionately acknowledge the other person’s emotions without expressing pity for them. Feeling sorry for others emphasizes how their problems are affecting us rather than understanding how they feel.
    • Blocking. The goal of compassionate empathy is validation, not cessation, of the other person’s emotional response. By responding with statements like “don’t cry” or “be strong,” we’re telling the other person that we don’t want to deal with their tough emotion. We’re blocking them.
    • Rescuing is when we offer unsolicited advice or do something for another person that is best for them to do for themselves. We try to give relief to the person quickly by being over-responsible for the situation. When expressing compassionate empathy, your job is to be a considerate listener rather than a savior or rescuer.
    • Denying. Toxic positivity is rampant in our culture and often results in denying others’ and our own emotions when we perceive them as “negative.” Empathy, on the other hand, accepts all emotions as valid without labels or judgment.

Learn and avoid five more feeling stuffers along with loving replacements for all of the feeling stuffers. Check out our empathy workbook.
Grown child connecting with his father

Vital Keys to Empathizing and Applying Empathy

Ultimately, expressing compassionate empathy boils down to four key pillars. By honing these core skills, we can strengthen our ability to empathize and deepen our connections with others.

Pillar 1: Seeing the World as Others See It.

The goal of empathy is to “put yourself in another person’s shoes,” so to speak. Seeing the world as others see it doesn’t mean taking on others’ emotions. Instead, it is making the conscious decision to postpone your personal agenda and focus on being fully present with and listening to your loved one.

         How to express empathy             

When listening to a loved one’s problems, avoid becoming preoccupied with your own emotions or attached to a specific outcome. If you don’t, you will be less likely to see the world from another person’s perspective—and more likely to use feeling stuffers instead of empathizing compassionately.

Pillar 2:  Making an Effort to Be Nonjudgmental.

While it can be challenging to see someone we care about in pain, we often erroneously assume that we are responsible for helping them feel better. We’re not. This misconception and subsequent pressure can result in labeling, judging, or fixing to achieve a swifter resolution.

When we feel responsible for making a person happier but instead they get more emotional, then we can think we have failed. Sometimes, our caring and presence release a person’s deeper feelings for a more complete resolution. However, if we are impatient for them to move on or judge how they express themselves, our judgment can shut down the other person’s desire to share openly and even invoke feelings of shame or guilt.

         How to express empathy             

Do not give unsolicited advice or focus on “fixing” the other person’s problems. Instead, suspend your judgment, recognizing that emotional expression is rarely rational and cannot be solved like a math equation. Feelings need to be felt! Labeling emotions as “good” or “bad” is unhelpful and prevents genuine empathy. Release attachment to a specific outcome and practice being responsive to the person’s needs.

Pillar 3:  Understanding the Other Person's Feelings.

It is common to invalidate people’s experiences under the guise that “other people have it so much worse.” It can be tempting to be casual or dismissive of another person’s suffering when it is something we have not experienced ourselves, or it seems minor compared to an experience much more devastating. For example, the person is upset because their boyfriend stood them up for a date, and you have a friend who just lost their mother to cancer. The inequality feels so disproportionate that their experience seems trivial in comparison. However, everyone has a right to their emotions. A tragedy elsewhere does not invalidate any person’s emotional experience, regardless of how small.

         How to express empathy!                 

You do not need to have personally experienced an emotion or situation to empathize compassionately. Helping another person feel understood often boils down to being a good listener. Be interested in how they perceive their experience. Ask clarifying questions in a compassionate tone and seek to understand what they’re feeling.

Two women wrapped in colorful wool blanket

Pillar 4: Communicating Your Understanding of Their Feelings

Merely listening to another person’s grievances is rarely enough. When expressing compassionate empathy, your job is to listen, mirror what they’re feeling, and respond. Your response doesn’t have to be eloquent; a loving nod with supportive gestures and caring eye contact is often adequate. Focus on communicating your understanding of their feelings to help them feel heard.

          How to express empathy!             

Mirroring the person’s tone and body language assures them that you are listening. Pay attention to their movements and tone of voice, and respond similarly. This syncing through resonance provides reassurance and allows them to relax, knowing that someone caring is listening.

Hungry for More? Ready for Practice?

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

If you’d like personalized coaching support, we’re here to help! Reach out to Heartmanity at support@heartmanity.com.

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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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