The Four Qualities of Empathy

Empathy fuels connection
Stories are data with a soul, says Dr Brené Brown. Next time you need to choose how to express what you feel for someone, you might want to reach out for empathy. In this RSA animate short, Brown says empathy fuels connection, while sympathy drives disconnection.

Our brains are wired to run from pain—including emotional pain—whether it is ours or someone else's. In the video, Brown says empathy rarely starts with the words, “At least…” and oftentimes, the best response is, “I don't know what to say, but I am really glad you told me.”

Often we rush to try and fix a problem for a loved one, yet that is not our job or even within our ability to do. Instead, we should offer a listening, caring ear. This is something most of us can do. And when we feel heard, cared for, and understood, we also feel loved, accepted, that we belong.

Brown references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman's four attributes of empathy:

1.) To be able to see the world as others see it—this requires putting our stuff aside to see the situation through the eyes of a loved one

2.) 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

3.)To understand another person’s feelings—we need to be in touch with our personal feelings in order to understand someone else's. This also requires putting aside "us" to focus on our loved one

4.) To communicate our understanding of that person’s feelings—rather than saying, “At least…” or “It could be worse…” try, “I've been there, and that really hurts,” or (to quote an example from Brown) “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

Empathy is a choice, and “it's a vulnerable choice,” says Brown. We can strengthen empathy with practice. See also empathy and emotions as seen through the eyes of children.