Empathy is the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand or relate as best as you can to how that person feels in the situation.  Another response to hearing another person’s problem is to express sympathy. Sympathy is the ability to express ‘culturally acceptable’ condolences to anothers problem, a lot of the time this includes pointing out a "silver lining" in the situation.

Empathy is harder to accomplish for many reasons because our brains are wired to run from pain—including emotional pain—whether it is ours or someone else's. We not only have to actively listen to another person’s problem without judgement but then be honest with ourselves and the the other person about our feelings as a listener. That connection builds bridges that enforce trust and understanding that are healthy and positive for both people. At a later time it may be appropriate to look for meeting needs and building a solution.

Brown points out in this video that empathy rarely starts with the words, "At least..." and that oftentimes, the best response is, "I don't know what to say, but I am really glad you told me."   When we feel heard, cared about, and understood, we also feel loved, accepted, and as if we belong. This is the art of meeting basic needs. 

In I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn't) (2008), Brown references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman's four attributes of empathy:

  • To be able to see the world as others see it—This requires putting your own "stuff" aside to see the situation through the eyes of someone else. 

  • To be nonjudgmental—Judgement of another person's situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation.

  • To understand another person’s feelings—We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else's. 

  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings—Rather than saying, "At least you..." or "It could be worse..." it is, "Tell me more about it.”

Brown explains that empathy is a skill that strengthens with practice and encourages people to both give and receive it often. By receiving empathy, not only do we understand how good it feels to be heard and accepted, we also come to better understand the strength and courage it takes to be vulnerable and share that need for empathy in the first place. It is also the starting point of the  the problem solving journey,  to make something better there needs to be connection to fully understand the root problem.  

Empathy is walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes. Sympathy is being sorry their feet hurt.

Take the empathy test

Empathy Quotient (EQ) questionnaire is designed to measure empathy in adults. The test was developed by Simon Baron-Cohen at ARC (the Autism Research Centre) at the University of Cambridge.