What I’ve learned about empathy


Have you ever encountered someone who is going through a troubling time (death in the family, serious illness, loss of a job, etc) and felt like you said the wrong thing? I feel like that all of the time!

In 2011, I volunteered at a non-profit that helps women who have survived a sexual assault. As volunteers, we went through an intensive two weekend (40 hours) training before we were allowed to interact with survivors. The main focus of this training was – teaching empathy.

Before this training, I had no idea that empathy was something I had to learn. It isn’t something we are born knowing how to do. Similar to doing our taxes, learning to read, or learning to ride a bike, it takes practice and work before it becomes comfortable and normal.

I still haven’t mastered it.

Though I don’t have it completely figured out, I wanted to share what I have learned through my volunteer training:

1.) Empathy is not the same as pity.

2.) It doesn’t help to say, “I know what you’re going through.” Because we all have different experiences and no one really knows what a person goes through. It helps to say, “I’m here if you want to talk about it, I love you.” Even if I’ve been in similar circumstances, this is about their experience.

3.) Telling a story about yourself, that is similar to what the other person is going through, isn’t helpful. (This is one I am guilty of committing). My intentions were good with this one because what I wanted to say was, “You’re not alone.” Saying that sentence is more empathetic than launching into a story about yourself or someone you know.

For example, a good friend of mine was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. When she told people about her diagnosis, she was bombarded with other people’s stories. They’d say things like, “My uncle had cancer…he had this that and the other surgery/treatment.” Instead of comforting her, these stories were actually exhausting because she had to listen to a terrible story about cancer and be supportive to the person telling the story.

4.) Advice is not empathy

I can’t tell you how many new moms are faced with limited/no support because of this one. You’ve read many books, tried every tactic and your 5-month-old goes a week where he/she isn’t sleeping through the night. Instead of getting support or empathy – you’ll get this, “Does he use a pacifier?” “Have you tried white noise?” “Have you tried swaddling?”

This advice comes from a good place. Your loved ones want to solve the problem so that you can get some sleep. But it isn’t empathy. And sometimes, it is nice just to have someone say, “That’s really hard.”  or “Moms go through a lot.” or “You are doing everything you can.”

5.) Empathy means listening

When friends and family go through something terrible, I have a fear that I’ll say the wrong thing. But part of what I’ve learned is that empathy isn’t about what I say at all, it is about how well I am available to listen.

Showing up, listening, and sitting next to someone who is going through a tough time isn’t always easy. Sometimes, it is downright uncomfortable. But the times when others have been able to do this for me, are the times when I experienced the most healing. When I’ve been able to truly listen and be available, those are the times I’ve gotten a follow up from a friend or family member where they say that I’ve really helped them.

I like to remind myself – You don’t have to have the right words. You just have to have a loving, nonjudgmental, ear.

Empathy is such a broad topic that I’ll probably have some follow up posts in the future. In the meantime, what does empathy mean to you? What has someone in your life said/done that really helped you when you were going through a difficult time?

Thanks for stopping by creating a skyscraper, have a great day!

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