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How to show genuine empathy to someone

Updated: Dec 6, 2021


When someone we know is going through a tough time, or is down or facing a challenge, we want to help. We worry about them, we want things to be ok for them, and we want them to feel better.

We want to help ease someone’s pain, although sometimes we just don’t know how to help or what to say.

So what is Empathy? And how do we show it?

While there are many definitions of empathy, it is generally described as having the ability to identify with the emotions someone else is feeling.

Empathy has been called the cornerstone of Emotional Intelligence, and it is extremely different to Sympathy. Empathy is a form of human connection, where we can take someone’s perspective, ‘stand in their shoes’ in a way, and identify with the emotion they might be experiencing. Sympathy is more a feeling of sorrow for what the other person is going through.

Empathy is a choice – to feel it we have to connect with something in us that knows the feeling that the other person is experiencing.

And because to feel empathy we are connecting to an emotion in us, we can often confuse empathy, or communicate in a way that doesn’t always help the other person.

If you really want to be there for someone and connect with them with empathy, here are some things to work on avoiding, and what you could try or do instead.

AVOID comparing your experience to theirs.

It is very tempting to say ‘I understand exactly how you feel’, or ‘I know how you feel’, although it is not effective in showing empathy. While you might have been through something similar, and you genuinely care, and you might have experienced the emotion or a situation that might be similar to theirs, you just CAN’T know exactly how someone feels. You are not them. And when people hear these statements they often feel less understood or less heard, or like you are trying to make the situation about you or compete in some way. Instead, say something like, ‘I can only imagine how you feel.’ ‘I’m here for you.’ ‘I care about you.’

AVOID jumping in to cheer someone up.

Avoid all of these:’ Well, at least you ____________’, or ‘I guess it could be worse.’ or, ‘Try to look on the bright side.’ Yes, a situation can ALWAYS be worse, but that person doesn’t really want to hear that right now.

Eventually the person will see things with more perspective, when they’re ready.

Instead try saying something like, ‘I’m not sure what to say,’ or ‘I’m glad you are telling me this.’

AVOID applying your judgement.

Yes this is difficult, and yes we are all human so we do have views and opinions and it is tempting to judge. We’ve all thought to ourselves and probably said out loud, ‘Well if they hadn’t ……… they wouldn’t be in this position.’ People know when you are judging them – it is in the tone of your voice, and the words that you use and the body language you show. If you want to show someone genuine empathy to someone, you must put your personal judgement aside.

Instead, funnel your energy into compassion and genuine caring and remember how unique we all are, with different backgrounds, experiences, values, beliefs and preferences. And many of us are very hard on ourselves and very good at self-judgement, so start being kinder to yourself as well.

AVOID telling someone what they SHOULD be doing/feeling/thinking.

This can be applied at anytime, in any situation, with anyone. We all have a friend who loves to give advice, ‘Do you know what you should do?………….‘

While we want to help, this could be one of the least helpful and least empowering things we can say to anyone. Instead, you could try just listening and saying nothing, making no suggestions or ‘fixes’.

Or if the time is right, and you have already connected with the person in non-judgement, you could try softly asking,’What do you think you’ll do?’ Or if you have great rapport with that person, or you have been asked by the person, ‘What should I do?’, or ‘What would you do?’ could try something like, ‘You know, I am not you so I could be off the mark, but have you ever thought of …………?’, or I know I’m not you, but if I were in the situation you are in right now I might………’

AVOID avoiding. Sometimes we can see and hear that someone we know or love is not happy, or frustrated, or down, and many times we avoid reaching out. We don’t know how to help, or what to say, so we stay away, or say nothing, or pretend nothing’s happening.

Instead, acknowledge others. Be the person who checks in with others. If you can hear it in someone’s voice, or see it on their face, ask if they are ok. ‘You seem a bit down today. Is everything ok?’

Your choice of words and tone of voice is very important here. ONLY focus on what you can see or hear, don’t overstate the situation, in fact use words that are lighter than the ones you might automatically choose, and use a caring soft tone. ‘You sound a little frustrated. Can I help?’

Now if you have read this and you are starting to think about times when you have said the things we’ve suggested to avoid, you are not alone. Every one of us has said these things with the best intentions, and we were doing our very best to help someone we love or care about, and that is a good thing. Acknowledge yourself as a kind and caring friend or family member.

The world can certainly do with more kind, caring and compassionate, empathetic people.

Empathy is a skill that we can all learn and develop.

Brene Brown is a research professor who has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, shame, and empathy, and this short video brilliantly explains the difference between empathy and sympathy and how to show genuine empathy more often. Skills for building empathy play a strong role in developing your emotional intelligence and your communication skills. They are well worth learning and applying. Thanks for reading our article.

Until next time, The PLS team

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