Distinguishing between Empathy and Other Responses to Difficulty

Let’s explore Empathy within and through the Mindful Compassionate Dialogue lens. In this newsletter, Wise Heart explores what empathy is and distinguishes it from other common responses to difficulty, allowing you to become more aware of your habitual responses and instead consciously choose what is most helpful and needed when someone is expressing emotion, difficulty or even celebration. In next week’s blog we’ll look at When Empathy Isn’t Received.

Empathy is the second relationship competency in Mindful Compassionate Dialogue (MCD). Offering empathy means listening to someone’s experience with warm curiosity and the desire to connect. It might be offered in silence or with guesses about thoughts, feelings, and needs. Empathy is a form of attunement and acknowledgement of our shared humanity. It is a heart-based response to a heart-based expression. 

Empathy is about creating a quality of connection in which there is a sense of honour and acceptance regarding the other person’s experience. It requires the ability to be comfortable with uncomfortable emotions and witness the suffering of others while trusting in their path. When you have a thought about what you would like the other person to think, believe, feel or do, you have shifted your attention to your own feelings and needs. Simply express that shift directly. For example, you could say, “I notice something is coming up for me.”

Empathy is not about rescuing someone from a difficult experience. When you offer empathy, you are not taking responsibility for the other person’s feelings and needs. Becoming lost in another’s emotional experience simply makes two lost people. Truly offering empathy requires you to stay centred and self-connected.

When you offer empathy, it doesn’t mean you approve of, agree with, or accept people’s views, thoughts, or behaviour. You are most easily able to offer empathy to someone when you disagree with them when you trust yourself to stay grounded in what’s true for you and express that when it’s important to do so.

Empathy requires healthy boundaries. Being able to set a boundary when you don’t want to offer empathy, or when you have offered as much empathy as you are able, is essential. If you are not able to say “no,” you are not truly saying “yes.”

Not Empathy

Each MCD Relationship Competency identifies 6 skills, along with specific practices for learning each. The first skill within Empathy is to identify the differences between empathy and other responses to difficulty.

These are responses that you might offer in response to someone’s expression of emotion or difficulty. Usually, when someone is expressing difficulty, empathy is the need they want met first. The following responses may meet needs, they are simply not empathy. Ideally, you can become conscious of these habitual responses and ask the speaker what they want back from you when they share something.

SYMPATHY: Bring attention back to yourself. “Oh, I am so sorry, I feel terrible for you.” This may meet a need for caring.

ADVICE: You assume the other person wants to know what you think they should do. “Well, what you could do is…” This may meet a need for support after empathy is received.

EXPLAIN/ANALYZE: You believe that if you tell someone why they feel the way they do, they will feel better. “You just feel bad because…”  This may meet a need for clarity after the need for empathy is met.

CORRECT: You try to point out someone’s mistake in interpreting. “He didn’t do that to hurt you, he was just in a hurry.” This may meet a need for groundedness after the need for empathy is met.

CONSOLE: “It will be okay. You’re okay, everything will work out.” This may meet a need for emotional regulation.

TELL A STORY: “The same thing happened to me. This one time …” This may meet a need for acceptance or belonging.

PUSH AWAY FEELINGS: You might be uncomfortable so you tell others not to feel what they feel. “Come on smile, don’t be sad.”;  “Just calm down and take a deep breath.”;  “It’s not that big of a deal, just let it go.” This typically doesn’t meet any needs.

INVESTIGATE/INTERROGATE: “Why did you do that? What made you feel that way?” This may meet a need for clarity after the need for empathy is met, but typically is about the listener’s need for clarity and information and arises out of anxiety.

EVALUATE: You decide if another’s emotional response is appropriate or not. “You are overreacting. This is no big deal.” This typically doesn’t meet any needs. All emotional responses are inherently valid because they exist and are simply a part of the flow of experience.

EDUCATE: What I see about the situation is … The reason you feel like that is…” This may meet a need for learning and support after the need for empathy is met.

ONE-UP: “That’s awful, but something even worse happened to me and I was devastated.” This typically doesn’t meet any needs.

DIAGNOSE: “Sounds like you had a panic attack. I know some good herbs for anxiety.” This may meet a need for learning and support if it is consent-based and offered after the need for empathy is met.

DEMAND: “If you don’t get control of your emotions, I’m leaving!” This typically doesn’t meet any needs.

DENIAL OF CHOICE: “It’s a hard thing, but we all have to do it.” This typically doesn’t meet any needs.

NOD & SMILE: You feel uncomfortable and just want to get out of the situation. Or you lose track of yourself and become completely lost in the experience of the other person. This typically doesn’t meet any needs.

COLLUSION: You agree and add to judgments and blame. “You’re right he really is a jerk!” This is a tragic strategy that may meet a need for support or being seen/heard in the moment, but then escalates or entrenches reactivity.

SILVER LINING: Move past what’s happening toward some possible positive outcome. “You will learn so much from this experience!”; “You probably lost this job so you can get one that’s really right for you.” This may meet a need for hope or encouragement, after the need for empathy is met.

CHEERLEADING: You assume the need is for hope or reassurance. “You’re a strong person, you can get through this.”; “You’ve been through worse and made it.”; “I believe in you.” This may meet a need for hope or encouragement, after the need for empathy is met.


Take a moment to read each of these and identify two that are the most common habits for you. Set your intention to notice the next time you do this and ask the other person if that is what they are looking for – if it meets their needs in the moment.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s blog.

Thank you for reading, for being here, and for being you.

With love.

You are also invited to join our free biweekly Empathy Circle, where you can learn and discover what empathy is, and more importantly, practice giving and receiving empathy, allowing you to be deeply seen and heard in whatever challenge or celebration you’re navigating.

If you would like to learn and cultivate the relational competencies, communication skills and emotional capacity needed to create compassionate, skilful and thriving relationships with yourself and others, have a look at our upcoming Mindful Compassionate Dialogue course. Click HERE.

Click HERE. If you’d like to experience a powerful coaching conversation, book a complimentary 1:1 Coaching Call with me. Click HERE.

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