How to Respond to Others With Empathy

By Sarah Spitz, LMSW

Simply put, Brene Brown is my hero. Her research on vulnerability and shame is inspiring, and I often use her work with my clients. She has a great animated video in which she explains the difference between empathy and sympathy. As she says, empathy is a powerful tool for connection, while sympathy creates distance. Have you ever struggled to respond to someone when they tell you bad news? Or despite trying really hard to make someone feel better, you seem to only make them feel worse? Responding to other people's pain is difficult, so how can we learn to respond more effectively?

Below are some tips to responding with empathy:

Avoid Minimizing

While we may have the best intentions, when we try to “put things in perspective,” we often do more harm than good.  As Brown says in her video, rarely does an empathic response start with “at least.”  For example, if you had just been passed up for a promotion that you had been working really hard for, would you feel good if someone said, “at least you still have a job.” While finding the silver lining to a negative situation may feel productive, often that is not what the other person wants to think about in that moment. Sometimes, “thank you for sharing that with me, it must be really difficult,” is all you need.

Avoid Problem Solving

I'm not saying that problem solving isn’t important.  However, there is a proper time and place for it.  When someone is feeling really down in the dumps, they may not be ready to start coming up with a list of ways to make the situation better. Instead of responding with solutions, meet the person where they are.  From there you can support them in the way they need.

Avoid Judgement

Regardless of our thoughts about a person’s circumstance, they probably already have enough judgement from themselves. Instead, respond with compassion. I assure you that it will go a lot further.  When we respond without judgement, we are more likely to be able to start an honest and productive conversation. 

Sarah Spitz is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in prioritizing and taking care of your mental health, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.