Are You Sure You’re Responding with Empathy? Here’s a Checklist of Common Mistakes

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Empathy isn’t about fixing: it’s the brave choice to be with someone in their darkness – not to race to turn on the light so we feel better. – Brené Brown

To respond with empathy might be our intention but it’s not as easy it might seem.

Our busy and caring minds tend to jump to so many potential responses, yet we have to be aware that not all of them are what creates that meaningful connection.

So what is an empathetic response and what are the common mistakes we make?



Theresa Wiseman distinguishes four elements of empathy:

  • Perspective taking – trying to understand what situation the other is in
  • Staying out judgement – no shaming or blaming
  • Recognising the emotion in others – trying to understand what emotions the other is feeling
  • Summarising what you see – telling the other what you’ve observed

So instead of judging or trying to “solve” the situation for others, we simply identify that it indeed sucks and sit with them.

That sounds easy but see for yourself if you ever jump into any of the scenarios that Holley Humphrey has identified as obstacles to an empathetic response.

  • Advising: “this is what you should do…”
  • Educating: “look, it can be seen as a positive experience…”
  • One-upping: “oh, this is nothing, let me tell you about something much worse that’s happened to me…”
  • Consoling: “it’s all OK, it wasn’t your fault…”
  • Story-telling: “this reminds me of…”
  • Interrogating: “tell me more, give me more details…”
  • Explaining: “I didn’t call you because of this and that…”
  • Sympathising: “Poor you…”


(I myself have used all of them in my life at some point and definitely have my “favourites”, oh my!)


Please notice that, interestingly, the difference between empathy and sympathy is more than linguistics:

Sympathy is something similar to pity while empathy is connecting to the emotion that the person is feeling.


Ah, so much to cover! I do exactly that in my episode.

Enjoy it, apply it, and share it with your friends who might find it valuable!


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