Understanding Empathy

Understanding Empathy in Communication

Empathy is an emotion that's often misunderstood.

While it's easy to say

"I know how you're feeling"

the truth is, more often than not, we've no idea how another person is feeling at all.

True Empathy

It's only when we've personally experienced the same emotion as another person is experiencing that we can truly feel empathy.

Those of us who have experienced a wide degree of emotions (from the deepest darkest depression to elation and excitement) are those most likely to be able to empathise with others.

After all, it stands to reason that only those who have been depressed will truly understand how it feels to be depressed. Similarly, only those who have won the lottery know how that feels.


It can actually feel very patronising to those who are experiencing a certain emotion to be told

"I know how you feel"

by somebody who clearly doesn't.

Think of a mother who's lost her child. How would she feel to be told "I know how you're feeling" by somebody who hasn't even had children, let alone lost one? Hurt? Bitter? Angry?

False Empathy

It's not unusual for those who are on the receiving end of false empathy to feel angry.

Those who are suffering painful emotions are looking for somebody to share their feelings with and that person doesn't necessarily have to have experienced the same feelings themselves.

All they need is somebody who will listen and understand that they're hurting without patronising them.

Use Your Imagination

If you're not certain that you've experienced the same emotion, it's better to say so rather than imagine you're able to understand how the person feels.


"I can't imagine how you must be feeling but I know it must be incredibly painful"

is far better than saying

"I know how you feel"

In cases where we are able to empathise, our emotional intelligence works very quickly, reminding us of emotions experienced under similar circumstances. If, for example, you've experienced the pain of being abandoned by your partner, you'll feel what another person in the same situation is feeling.

It may be painful for you to relive those feelings but it's only then that you can truly empathise with those in a similar situation.

Stay in Touch with Your Own Feelings

Just as we can numb our feelings with alcohol and drugs, so we can numb our ability to empathise. In general, a drunk who says they know how you feel isn't able to empathise at all.

At least, not until he's sober again.

He may believe he can empathise because he knows he's experienced similar feelings in the past, but unless he's able to feel them along with you, his empathy will be non-existent.

When we stay in touch with our own feelings we are in a much better position to empathise with others.

But remember, if we're unable to empathise, it's better to admit it than to pretend we understand because believe me, people will quickly be able to determine whether you truly empathise with them or not.

This article was contributed by Sharon Jacobsen

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