How to Communicate with Empathy


“When…someone really hears you without passing judgement on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels…good…. When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and go on. It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens. How confusions that seem irremediable turns into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.”

-Carl Rodgers

I am not empathetic. Yes, me, the marriage counselor. As a therapist, I sometimes fall into the rut of “fixing”. Just this last week I was sitting with a precious couple who have been having marriage issues, and instead of listening to what they were trying to say, I tried to fix the problem. To my utter surprise, it made them shut down, not open up. They became less trustful of me. I want to make people’s lives and marriages better, and besides, isn’t fixing the problem what people pay me to do? Yes, it is, which is why I fall into this temptation more often than what I want to admit. Instead of empathy, I was showing them that their problems weren’t really that big of a deal if only they would do X, Y and Z. My motives were pure, I was truly trying to help but, unfortunately, the quick fix isn’t what people need to solve the real issues. They need a listening ear and an empathic heart.

“Believing we have to ‘fix’ situations and make others feel better prevents us from being present,” says Marshall Rosenberg in his book Nonviolent Communication. Empathy has much less to do with the words one says but rather your presence. Showing up and putting your arm around a friend’s shoulder as they go through a difficult time will be much more helpful and meaningful to them than saying empathetic things like quotes from scripture or telling them its “going to be okay”. As well-meaning as our words are intended to be, sometimes, they can hurt more than help – something I re-learned last week. As a general rule, stay away from these things:

  • Advising: “you should have…” or “Why don’t you…”
  • Comparing: “You know, so many other people have it so much worse…” or “Well look what happened to me…”
  • Educating: “This will turn out great if you do these things…” or “It didn’t happen that way…”
  • Story-Telling: “This reminds me about a time…”
  • Shutting Down: “Don’t feel bad, it’s going to be okay.”
  • Defending: “I would have been there but I…”
  • Advice Giving: “If you could pray more or read your Bible…” or “Do this thing and it could solve the issue….”

Empathic responses can be very difficult. You may think you are helping by suggesting options or asking more questions, but in reality, the person ends up feeling unheard, and like their feelings about the situation are invalid. This creates a wedge in the relationship. Empathy can be difficult because it requires an extraordinary amount of responsibility: the responsibility of here and now, not past or future. It requires a shutdown of an intellectual understanding of the problem, which blocks empathy. Intellectual understanding requires you to look at the person, emotional understanding requires you to look with the person. Again, it requires us to dive into the hole with them and be there, not look down from above. If we are looking at people with sympathy, we are not with them empathically.

Comment Time! Let me know what you think and if you have any other tricks you learned about empathy.

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