How to Express Empathy – Avoid the Traps!

It was the Fall of 2011 and I began to cry as I was reading Brene Brown’s book I thought it was just me. I discovered that at age 42 I was unable to express empathy. This came as a huge shock.

In this post you will learn the common empathy traps that we tend to fall in. Once you know the how to avoid the pitfalls, you’ll be ready to start building your emotional muscles. Fortunately for us, awareness and a little practice goes a long way to improving empathy.

Why care about empathy?

The practice of empathy builds trust and increases safety in your family and work environments. It supports the social fabric required for communication and shared activities. A world with empathy is nurturing and supportive – it creates an environment where people can be creative and take risks.

Empathy Traps (Anti-patterns)

Most of us have a basic understanding of how to express empathy.

The HUGE PROBLEM is that we are really good at BLOCKING EMPATHY to protect ourselves from feeling.

Imagine someone is in emotional distress. By blocking their emotions from our reality, we can avoid acknowledging and connecting to their pain. In the short run, this is great – we avoid pain. In the long run, we destroy the fabric of our relationships and our environments.

Three common traps and pitfalls are indicated in the diagram below. I am (sadly) an expert in the use of each one and am still working on being authentic and not running these anti-patterns.

Empathy - Pitfalls and Traps

Trap #1: Even Worse – the basic idea here is to compare the persons’s problem with someone else’s problem that is even much bigger. On the surface this may seem like we’re helping them: we’re letting them know that their problem is not that substantial and that surely this will help them see how unimportant it really is. What we are really doing is that we are saying that their problem and feelings are invalid or unworthy. Brene calls this “stacking the deck” and give this example from being trumped in cards: “I’ll see your ‘drunk mother’ and raise you a ‘drug-addict sister’”

Trap #2: Look on the Bright Side – in this approach we ask people to focus on the the positive outcome of the situation. Remember the saying “Every cloud has a silver lining?” or “The glass isn’t half empty, it’s half full.”  While I believe strongly in both of these statements and the related NLP technique of reframing, these have no place whatsoever when seeking to express empathy. When we focus on the positive, rather than acknowledge a person’s feelings, we ignore and dismiss them as unimportant. The net result is that we invalidate the other person. Hint: once someone feels fully heard and supported in their emotion, it may be  it may be appropriate and helpful to help them see the bright side.

Trap #3: Problem Solving – rather than be with the person in an emotion, we immediately jump to problem solving mode: How can we fix this problem? Typically, we start by assuming the person has invited us to solve their problem by telling us about their situation. (Why else would they tell us?) With this trap, we avoid acknowledging or recognizing the emotion and keep it just to the facts of the situation. We discuss how the situation came to be so it can be avoided in the future.

What to do about this?

  • Notice when you are running these anti-patterns and STOP TALKING. Saying nothing is much better than falling in these traps. Rewind the conversation if you need to. It’s never too late to go back.
  • Be kind to yourself. You are human like the rest of us. You’ve probably been running these patterns for years and years – it’ll take time to get better.
  • Take a deep breath and practice your empathy muscles. Yes! You can learn these skills. See below for one way to do this.

 Four Elements of Empathy

The following infographic show four elements of empathy as defined by Theresa Wiseman:

These are:

  1. See their World – to be able to see the world as others see it. This mean that you cognitively understand what they are saying and can see it from their point of view.
  2. Appreciate them as Human Beings / No-Judgement – to be nonjudgmental. I have restated the original “non-judgmental” in the the positive so it provides an actionable checklist. Judgement is actually another trap. We go into judgement to discount the persons situation so that we can avoid experiencing their pain. For us to express empathy, we need to see the person as a human being – someone who is valuable in their own right. Warning: this can be very difficult to overcome. I have an upcoming post on the “Anatomy of Peace” that will help clarify.
  3. Understand Feelings – to understand another person’s feelings. We need to get in touch with our emotions in order to truly connect with another person’s feelings. There is lot’s of brain research on mirror neurons and how we are neurologically wired to relate to other human beings. A common reason to skip this element of empathy is that we don’t have our own emotions sorted out. So, you may need to do some of your own mental housekeeping in order to be in a place where you can acknowledge other peoples feelings.
  4. Communicate Understanding – to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings. The final element is that someone feels like they are understood – that they are seen and heard. This part for me has been a real struggle since I often don’t know what to say. Here is a great phrase from Brene Brown that can be used verbatim or as a starting point: “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

My Experiences with Empathy

It has been a little over a year since I developed a clear intent to increase my practice of empathy.

The good news is that I am much better at it. Over the last year, I have seen many people touched by the simple act of listening and just being there for them. It is so simple and so powerful.

The bad news is that I still struggle at times. I respond without thinking. Or my own feelings or wounds interfere with my ability to see someone else as a valuable human being. Continued and persistent success with empathy requires higher levels awareness of ourselves as well as healing of past trauma.

The ugly news for us a a society is that the empathy deficit is very large. I have noticed that it is commonplace for people to avoid emotions and empathy altogether. Many are lacking empathy skills and, far worse, not even aware that they are missing.

I encourage you to make a difference in the world. Practice empathy on your own and tell others about how they can too.

Acknowledgements

I am deeply grateful to Brene Brown for creating such a wonderful book - I thought it was just me (but it isn’t) - it has helped me in so many ways. The subtitle of the book is “Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame”, but men are in just as desperate need for reclaiming empathy and courage in a culture of shame.

Thanks to my dear friend Olaf Lewitz who suggested I read Brene’s book which has launched me on a tidal wave of change. I would also like to thank Pierre Lagacé and my “Gifts of Imperfection” meetup group for a chance practice empathy.

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12 Comments »

  • Richard Kasperowski Said,

    January 7, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

    Great observations, Michael. You and I are on the same path.

  • Michael Sahota Said,

    January 8, 2013 @ 8:54 am

    Richard – very happy to share the path with you. In particular.

  • Alexander Said,

    January 8, 2013 @ 9:48 am

    Hi,

    very interesting article but for me hard to put in place!

    I am missing how this helps to help the people to “recover” or overcome the problem.

    Can you give more examples like in the sentence in the 4 part?

    Alex

  • Michael Sahota Said,

    January 8, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    Hi Alex,

    If I understand you correctly, you are wondering how people “recover” from difficult emotional situations.

    Empathy helps people recover because it gets them to a place of safety and support that allows them to be more resourceful about the situation. People have to mend themselves; we can help by being there for them.

    Here are two more examples of expressing understanding: “I can only imagine what you are feeling about ; it sounds very painful.” or “If I am hearing you correctly, you are saying that you are feeling sad and frustrated about .”

    If you find this valuable, I strongly encourage you to follow up by reading “I thought it was just me”. It has lot’s of examples of empathy and empathy traps.

    Regards,
    Michael

  • Tim Ottinger Said,

    January 8, 2013 @ 11:56 am

    You know, the conflict we get is that empathy is transparency in a weird kind of way. It’s an openness that takes away from the self-contained objective individual that we often spend half our lives becoming.

    It’s hard to empathize because we fear it can lead to taking the wrong side in an issue. Being wrong is really hard to internalize, because the whole forebrain was evolved/planned/designed/developed to help us not be wrong. The hindbrain couldn’t do that by itself.

    Think of how people maintain a “clinical distance” or “professional detachment” in order to leave more room for judgment, and you slam the door on the idea of growing and practicing empathy.

    Being a whole person means being in community, and judgment has to be balanced with benevolence, and friendship and humanity are not about always having the right answer. Being people is a messy business, and the balancing act is quite difficult.

    Tim

  • Michael Sahota Said,

    January 8, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your valuable comments. I appreciate you taking the time to share.

    I never thought of empathy as transparency on a personal level. Cool.

    Empathy as I understand it is not about taking sides. It is about acknowledging someone’s feelings and their validity as a human being. The “no judgement” part goes both ways – we neither condone nor support their actions/stance, but we do support them as a valuable person. i.e. Person=good. Action=undefined (no judgement). A bad action does not make a bad person.

    I am not sure how one can see someone as a human being and at the same time maintain “professional detachment”. Perhaps the latter means seeing the person as an object and not as a human.

    To be authentic, we absolutely need to call out what we see. (Is this what you mean by judgement?) But this is a separate thing from providing empathy. I see this as an AND not an OR. At least that’s what I am working towards in my life.

    - Michael

  • Tim Ottinger Said,

    January 8, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

    On “professional detachment” or “clinical distance” you’ll have to talk with people in counseling industry. It’s very, very important to them to not empathize too much lest they lose objectivity and fail to provide the correct therapy.

    But to your point, our first job as a human is not to provide therapy and “fix” the people around us. In fact, the idea that we are supposed to fix things is one of the pitfalls. The problem is that fixing things is a goal we can easily describe and explain and value.

    Not fixing things is harder to explain and adopt. Even understanding transparency and empathy is harder: “The practice of empathy builds trust and increases safety in your family and work environments. It supports the social fabric required for communication and shared activities. A world with empathy is nurturing and supportive – it creates an environment where people can be creative and take risks.”

    Notice that you have to explain it as being instrumental to other goals. Which, of course, it is. But it’s also not.

    You know me well enough to know that I”m in this business for the love, too. I like to see people ignited by the human spark and fearlessly (safely) moving forward unhesitatingly. I also tend to struggle to be that kind of person. Empathy matters a lot to me, and putting myself in the shoes of others has transformed my coaching practice.

    Thanks for tackling the topic. Much appreciated.

  • Michael Sahota Said,

    January 8, 2013 @ 4:13 pm

    Tim,

    Understood about “professional detachment”. I am more in the “wounded healer” school where helping others is not possible without skin in the game.

    Thanks for sharing your struggle. We all face that. I feel like increasingly like this is the difference between making lasting changes vs. superficial.

    Agile is about people first. The scary part is that this is taking me through challenging places to really be focused on the people.

    - Michael

  • Edwin Rutsch Said,

    January 13, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

    Michael
    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
    http://CultureOfEmpathy.com

    Also, would it be ok to repost one of your drawing as an photo post to our facebook page with a link back to your article at?
    http://facebook.com/EmpathyCenter

  • Michael Sahota Said,

    January 13, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

    Hi Edwin, thanks for sharing. I had no idea that there was such a movement – very cool. Feel free to repost on your facebook page. – Michael

  • Edwin Rutsch Said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 1:21 am

    Hi Michael, I posted it to.
    http://www.facebook.com/EmpathyCenter

    feel free to comment there as well.

  • Weekend Reading List | Brighter Lights Said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 11:56 am

    [...] >> How to Express Empathy – Avoid the Traps! (from agilitrix) [...]

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