Select Page

Getting To Grips With Empathy

Following on from my class on the components of empathy, I wanted to add some tips for practicing empathy:

Listen first without judgement. If you’re truly empathising, you’re not going to judge them or you. This may simply mean waiting a few extra seconds or minutes to hear something out before you jump to conclusions. That said, when you’re trying to empathise with someone, you shouldn’t be judging you anyway, especially as it can appear that you’re being complicit in a negative assessment of you that they haven’t necessarily made, but that you’ve assumed.

Leave the fantasy five off the table – assumptions, excuses, denial, rationalising, and minimising, i.e bullshit. These have nothing to do with empathy and everything to do with being too ‘inward’.

Be considerate. I get quite a few emails from people who are in their 30s, 40s and 50s who find that friends, family and even colleagues lack empathy when their relationships break down. Now while you may not have experience of divorce for instance, you likely have experience of having to start your life over after your heart was busted. You’ve experienced disappointment, rejection. Your life might be OK or even wonderful right now, but just imagine if it wasn’t and you were in their shoes. Remember though, that doesn’t mean that they are you. But do consider how you would feel if someone told you to just get over something? This is the same for job situations, loss of pets, dating, bereavements etc. You for instance might not be able to imagine becoming very attached to a pet, but I’m sure you’ve been attached to something you’ve loved dearly. You may even have experienced a bereavement of a loved one – that is how some people feel about a pet or even a breakup. Loss hurts. You don’t say to someone who is expressing their need for companionship “You’re 56 (or whatever age) – your sex and relationship days are over.”

Leave out the picturing. Perfect example. Reader goes on three dates with a man who she actually isn’t very interested in. During the third date he tells her about how his wife died a decade before and he’d raised their four children. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! Suddenly she felt her Florence cogs spring into action and in a matter of seconds she gone from lackluster interest to imagining standing by his side at family get together’s with his children and everyone thinking how great she was for bringing love into his life. That’s not empathy; that’s pity and an overactive imagination.

Try not to mix up your respective situations. Sometimes when we empathise, we take our experience which we deem as being similar or the same and then we may give bad advice, project too much, or even worse, rain on their parade. I know someone who was 49 and divorced. Her friend was 50 and divorced and when she found out that my friend was going to try a dating online again, she told her not to bother, that she too had had a relationship with someone who she’d met online not work out, and that combined with their divorces, they may as well resign themselves to being alone. My friend has been with the same guy that she met online after their conversation, for about 2.5 years, and her friend is still single and saying that it’s impossible to have a relationship over 50 and that if you do, it’s a fluke. Sometimes it’s good to check if they are actually similar or the same.

But if they are the same/similar, temper what you say with support. You can try to stop people from walking into oncoming traffic, but often they’ll walk into it anyway. They have to find out for themselves. A close friend has been burned by a married man. It was hard to hear her being so excited and happy when they first got together a few months back and actually, in my line of work, it can be tricky when friends tell you about their shady situations. I do this whole ‘friend hat / work hat’ thing. I told her the truth – that I’m excited that she’s happy and in love and how great it will be if things work out. I want her to be happy and I know that this is something that she feels that she has to check out. I also know that I don’t know him (well actually I do because these guys are like Ken dolls – there’s millions of them in different packaging) and for all I know, his may be one of those rare situations that bucks the trend. But I also told her that I wouldn’t be being a true friend if I didn’t express some caution. I gave her a few reasons why I had the caution but didn’t labour the point. She was hearing me, listening a bit, but still was going to put her hand in the fire. Since then, we’ve talked many times, and it has pained me to see her running in cars, but yes, it hasn’t worked out.

It can be really useful to gauge boundaries by asking “Do you want my take on this?” or “Would it be of any help if I told you what happened to me?”

Sometimes there is no advice, response, or a solution. Sometimes all you can do is listen and say “I am here for you.” Sometimes this is enough.

Don’t tell people that they’re stupid or doomed or that there are bigger problems going on. Yes there are always bigger problems going on in the world and this can give us some perspective, but it doesn’t mean that current position doesn’t hurt. It’s like someone saying “My leg hurts” and responding with “But there are starving people out there!” Er, I know, but my leg still hurts.

Don’t get carried away. Look for visual or audio cues that you’re both still in the same conversation and that you’re not so busy talking that you forget their feelings.

And sometimes the response needed is a decision, i.e. use of your judgement.


You’ve been dating someone for a while, lets say a few weeks or months, and they reveal that they are addicted to something, or maybe they tell you that they’re not ready for a relationship and they’re not over their ex.

You listen and you recognise that no matter what else you may think of them, addiction is unhealthy and that this takes priority over any plans you have for a relationship with them. With the not over ex thing, you recognise that there are three of you in this relationship, that they’re not over their ex which means that they are unavailable and have emotional ties that make it impossible for them to give you and your relationship the attention that it deserves.

At this point, if you are inclined to blame yourself, you’ll go “Why me?! What did I do?!”

But if you’re genuinely empathising, you will recognise that even though it’s a painful situation, that it must also be difficult for them. You may not have personal experience of addiction, but even if they’re not actually an addict, when someone tells you or shows you that they have a problem with something that is beginning to look like an addiction, this is serious. On the ex front, I’m sure you can relate. Think about what you were like when you weren’t over your ex. Maybe you thought you were OK and then one day it hit you like a sledgehammer? Maybe you thought you were ready but when you thought about moving forward, you found yourself panicking? Maybe you were still in touch with your ex? Maybe you really wanted attention? You can see how one can end up in this situation.

When you share in their feelings, you can empathise enough to be caring without being a doormat. Sometimes it’s as simple as “I’m sorry to hear that” or “It’s a shame that you’re going through this but do appreciate you being straight with me.”

Ask them some questions. How long have you felt like this? What have you been experiencing? This may help to give you a better picture of the situation so that you can understand their position. Of course they may not want to answer, or the recognition stage may be more than enough.

Process the feedback. “This person cannot give me what I want – they’re not in a position to do so, and if I stick around, I will end up in a lot of pain.” They need to address their issues and you don’t do sharing or playing buffering emotional airbag. If you insert your ego in there, I guarantee you, you will wind up in a lot of pain.

Boundaries. You can of course offer your support, but it’s support that you must be prepared to give whether you are in a romantic relationship or not. That said, on the addiction front, the person needs to want to do it for themselves. Don’t start micromanaging their life and do make your boundary clear that you appreciate them telling you, but they need to focus on sorting out their life and that you can’t do that for them. Asking more questions can help to cement this.

On the ex front, they may well want you to stick around and comfort them, but you must respect your own boundaries and not do this. It’ll be hard for them, as they won’t want to experience two losses, but you’re not a ‘filler’ and you deserve better. You can empathise with them and yourself and recognise that they might not want to rip off the Band Aid / plaster and that you like them a lot, but that you’re only making things worse by pretending the issue doesn’t exist.

Sometimes empathy will not necessarily happen over a conversation. It may be that you uncover a piece of information that changes your next step. There might not be a specific conversation. It may just be that you go through all of these stages at quick speed (obviously without having to ask them any questions) and you make a judgement and act.

E.g. You meet someone, you get talking, they say they just broke up with their ex. You empathise with their situation (in your mind) but you judge that it’s too soon and forget about proceeding.

Yes really, it can be that quick once you start practicing these habits!



One thing I would recommend if you’ve got the short end of the stick as a result of getting too caught up in over-empathising, blame, shame and your imagination running wild is to identify your ‘cue’ or ‘triggers’.

Think back over several situations where you have been caught out before, such as dating, at work, a conflict situation, a stranger, a new friend and try to pinpoint where you tend to get too emotionally involved. What prompts you to go down the over-empathy, blame etc path? Try to remember what was said, or what you were doing at the time or the overall situation and keep a note of these and try to remember what your cues are so that when you are in the situation again, you will remember and practice your new methods. You might say “Remember to listen to what they’re saying” or “Focus – remember this isn’t about me” or “OK, I’ve experienced this before, what do I need to do differently here?” – it helps if you’ve considered alternative actions to your typical habit.

We are moving to a new site! Set up your new login by 30th April