Let’s talk about empathy.  Empathy can can hurt and heal. 

Empathy IS tricky.

We began a conversion back in Episode 5, on the nuances about empathic distress and empathic concern. Empathic distress is either getting hijacked by difficult emotions or becoming numb to them in reaction to another person’s distress or situation.  

Empathic concern, in contrast, is learning to hold difficult emotions at bay and being present and caring in the face of suffering. 

Motivational empathy is skillfully moving from discomfort to compassion—from disconnection to connection.

Empathy grows as we grow. Literally. In a short time, as children begin to understand their own emotions and to know that other people also have their own emotions, empathy leads to caring actions. Toddlers as young as fourteen months naturally show kind, helping behaviors, such as bringing a baby bottle or toy to comfort another toddler in distress. Children readily enjoy helping others and, without thinking about it, they derive pleasure from doing so.

And here’s the kicker, children don’t necessarily look for rewards. 

Empathy is natural and it’s a skill

We can teach empathy. Repeatedly, and in ways that is relatable depending on a person’s age or stage.  Sometimes I joke that we all need remedial training on empathy no matter how old we are.

Yet, basic human skills seem best to me: like face-to-face compassionate listening, showing interest in another person or colleague, being willing to reach out after a loss or life challenge, allowing space to share multiple perspectives… that all takes constant practice, a willingness to make mistakes and then a willingness to make some course corrections.

Today’s Skill: Compassionate Listening

Have an intentional conversation. Here’s how to do it. 

Partner A: 5 minutes of talking; Partner B offers undivided attention.

Partner B:  5 minutes of talking; Partner A offers undivided attention.

Together: Converse mindfully for 5 minutes, allowing for nonverbal cues and pauses for validation and clarification.

The set up:

  • Find a quiet place without distraction and silence devices.  
  • Get grounded using some of the skills for getting present, like feeling your feet on the floor.
  • Breathe in and out in a calm way to settle the nervous system.
  • As the other person talks, pay attention to what they are saying, show interest and use body language that conveys interest and attention, like eye contact.  
  • And be relaxed in your body, with relaxed shoulders and face.  Having a stance of open heart and strong back.
  • Affirm their feelings or perspective with simple phrases. “That makes sense.” “Yah, I get it.” 
  • Ask clarifying questions, “When you say this do you mean that?
  • Validate feelings, especially if they are negative and make you feel defensive. Consider why the person might feel that way even if you don’t agree. Avoid giving advice or a counter argument.
  • Take turns. Ask if it’s ok to share your thoughts and when you do, try to use “I statements” whenever you can — about your perspective, feelings or needs. Own your own stuff and wait to share it.
  • Sometimes it can be helpful to set up some guidelines, like one person talks for 5 minutes while the other listens with complete attention; then switch for 5 minutes to give the other person a turn. Then allow five minutes of conversation.

 This takes practice.  Actually, I dare you! Try to be a listener and see how often you have the impulse to interrupt.


Tara Cousineau, The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World

The Little Deck of Kindnfulness