Empathy Basics



Empathy Basics

You are likely here because you don’t know how to help, and are scared about making things worse. Or perhaps you’re the person who is in the midst of a difficult time, and you want to give the freaked out people who love you some basic tools to help.

We are here. The basics of reaching out require that we are not afraid of what might go wrong if we try.

Empathy Roadblocks

We’re usually afraid of something like this:

  • We’ll do something that makes things worse.
  • We’ll inadvertently say something hurtful.
  • We don’t have the bandwidth to do much and will get in over our heads.

Sound familiar? You are not alone. We’ve all been there.

To help get over those fears, here are the Three Touchstones of Showing Up

  • Your kindness is your credential
    When you don’t know your place, doubt your skills, and feel like an insecure mess, know that what matters more than anything you say is the kindness that has brought you to reach out in the first place. People remember your intention far more than any specific thing you said.
  • Listening speaks volumes
    Instead of looking for something wise to say, trust that asking and listening is enough. Being wise or smart isn’t what’s needed most right now. When it comes to talking with someone about their difficult time, what’s needed most is for you to BE QUIET and listen. To help you believe this, remember these two mantras:

    • I can’t fix this.
    • I don’t know how this person feels.

    And then:

    • Keep quiet.
    • Avoid giving advice.
    • Squelch that impulse to give perspective and tell someone how to think or feel, like: “you have to be positive” or “things happen for a reason”.
    • Avoid making comparisons to your own or other people’s situations by never (ever) saying, “at least”.
  • Small gestures make a big difference
    Remember that most people in a difficult time don’t expect you to DROP EVERYTHING to be there for them 24/7. Usually, our fears of imperfection around “not doing enough” are demanding way more of us than anyone in a difficult time is. Trust that what little you can do — like send a text, email, card, or gift certificate — is almost always better than doing nothing.
“Listening to me talk about this horrible disease is one of the biggest gifts that I can receive.”
– Mother of a child with Cystic Fibrosis

The Bottom Line

Don’t run away. IGNORING YOUR FRIEND IN NEED IS THE WORST THING TO DO. We know it’s scary, but don’t stay away.


Empathy Exercises

When confronting the truth about how hard or uncomfortable it can feel to reach out to someone who is suffering, our first desire is avoid being a disaster and to learn what not to say. Our specific topic pages have some basic advice for that. But if you want the kind of empathy skills that help you build deeper relationships, you’re going to want to dig a little deeper into your communication repertoire. We have an exercise that comes from Kelsey’s book to get you started, and you can sign up to get three additional exercises in your inbox once a week for the next three weeks.

See our first empathy exercise below.

It’s easier to reach out to someone in a hard time when we’ve experienced something similar. It’s harder with experiences we’ve never had. To help, try practicing a little empathy. Which means using your mind to imagine what someone experiencing something you aren’t familiar with might be going through.

A way to do that is to think about two really tough situations you have been through. It could be miscarriage, loss, illness, a breakup, you name it.

Now, think about two other situations that you have not personally experienced. Could be infertility, divorce, loss of a job, or something very specific going on for someone you know right now.

What might the situation you’ve directly experienced have in common with the one that you haven’t? Pair them up, and consider these prompts to help you get specific:

  • Loss of community
  • Fear and emotional overwhelm
  • Loss of identity
  • Shame
  • Financial difficulty

What can happen is that we can come to feel compassion for the experience of fear of financial hardship that comes with divorce when we draw upon own experience with financial uncertainty and job loss, for example. It doesn’t mean we actually do know what a person is experiencing until they tell us. But the empathy practice gives us the attention to notice what could be going on and feel more compassion for a situation when it’s helpful.

Ultimately, we don’t need to walk a mile in another person’s shoes to realize when another human being might need support. We simply use our power to notice, feel, respond, and imagine what someone might be going through.