Learning Empathy

Posted on: 9th June 2014

This post is from Ethan who runs Body & Soul’s Social Enterprise Brave. For more information about Brave and the training it can provide, call Ethan at Body & Soul on 0207 923 6880.

Empathy is an incredibly complex process that we do naturally.


In many ways empathy can be a bit like breathing – so natural it can be done completely unconsciously, but we can also make a choice to practice this amazing skill which connects us to others.

For the past few months I’ve been running empathy training with the NHS, which has given me plenty of time to think about it. In this time I’ve learnt as much as the people I’m training. The way I speak, interact and strive to connect with other people has become increasingly important.

My definition of empathy has evolved too. Often people define empathy as ‘stepping into someone else’s shoes.’ This definition is easy to remember however perhaps invites misconceptions about what empathy is.

Some people believe that to step into someone else’s shoes you need to have experienced what they have been through. So, some may argue that because I have never lost a parent I cannot empathise with some one who has.

I prefer to talk about empathy as the ability to recognise feelings and emotions in others and respond with an appropriate feeling or emotion.  This is harder than it sounds. Brene Brown describes the process well in a speech she gave to the RSA.

I like this definition more because I simply need to be able to recognise the emotions of others and respond, not with the same emotion, but an appropriate emotion.

It also recognises that responding with the same emotion as the other person is feeling is not necessarily the best response.

When I think about this new definition I am transported back to Delhi in 2007. I was about to board a flight (or so I thought) to the UK. My travel agent had printed the time as 01.30 pm. So I arrived at the airport only to find that this was a misprint and I had missed my flight. I was obviously frustrated and my frustration, exasperation and fear closely resembled anger. If the young woman helping me had recognised that I was frustrated and afraid, she might have been able to calm me down faster. Instead she identified anger and responded with a similar emotion. This clearly did not help the situation and I ensured I did not use that airline again for nearly 4 years!

With this definition I am not trying to fix your feelings or emotions, instead I am validating their existence and that you are allowed to feel that way with complex and deep emotions sometimes that is all you can do.

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