The 5 Skills of Empathy


Definitions of empathy differ slightly. I like Simon Baron-Cohen’s version

(Psychologist and Fellow at Cambridge University)

“Empathy is about spontaneously and naturally tuning into the other person’s thoughts and feelings, whatever these might be. There are two major elements to empathy

  • Understanding the others feelings and the ability to take their perspective
  • An appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotional state”

 The Challenges with Empathy

The first set of challenges lay within Cohen’s words, ‘the other person’s thoughts and feelings, whatever these might be’.

Difficulties in genuinely expressing empathy arise when we are with a person who acts, thinks or emotes in ways in which our brain says, “I wouldn’t do that”.

Many can end up with ‘selective empathy’. Happy to demonstrate empathy for those we like and behave similarly; with little or no empathy for those who don’t.

Skill One: The Ability to Take Their Perspective

This doesn’t mean we have to agree with the other person. Instead we are simply appreciating they are caught in difficult feelings and emotions. We acknowledge this is where they find themself and is probably not where they would choose to be. And yes even including those that appear to go around in circles with their troubles.

Very few people choose to stay in emotional pain and anguish if they recognise a way out. And so in empathy we also appreciate that for that moment in time they are caught up within, lost or stuck in a set of difficult emotions.

The ability to take their perspective relies on developing both our skills and mind-set. Such as learning to accept and allow that this is where another finds themselves, through listening and …

Skill Two: Non-judgement

To take their perspective requires us to free ourselves from Judgment. The conscious and sub- conscious ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ statements that run through our brain. It’s our judgments that block the empathy that nearly all of us are capable.

These are often found in our internal dialogue as it comments on another’s distress or difficulty. Such as

  • “You’re over reacting”
  • “I don’t do that so you shouldn’t either”
  • “Pull yourself together”
  • “Get on with it” and the all time classic
  • “You’ve brought it on yourself.

Isn’t it interesting how this last example completely destroys the chances of empathy doing the good work its been proven to do?

How it completely goes against Baron Cohen’s research. In which we settle for the belief that

If only you had made better choices I could empathise with you!

This also shows us the very frequent relationship between judgment and blame.

The bottom line for all of us is, IF we are caught in any kind of judgment or blame about another we won’t be able to show genuine empathy. And without genuine empathy

  • People stay stuck in emotions
  • They verbally cycle and repeat
  • Relationships are strained and deteriorate
  • We write each other off
  • Attack and defence dominate instead of appreciation and collaboration

We can see these happening at work and at home.

However, even if I silently judge or blame you it might not stop me pretending that I’m showing you empathy. And many of us get caught in believing that we are good at empathy, even when we are also in judgment of the other – We can’t do both.

An Example

Watching a reality TV cop programme this week an experienced and skilled officer began to give clues to how she finds empathy difficult.

She said (regarding a suspect), “I have empathy for him BUT I pay my taxes”. Really translating as, I would have empathy for him IF he behaved like me.

Whether she is aware of it or not, her ability to show genuine empathy is being blocked by the inner judgment she holds.

In the same programme a fellow officer was trying to demonstrate empathy to a distressed and crying woman, after his team had legally entered a house using force and loud/scary sounding commands, as they stormed through the property.

He said, “I’m sorry for having to do this BUT you should have let me in”.

You will have noticed how the word BUT contradicts and negates his “sorry” and the blame statement completes the attempt.

There is a reasonable chance this experienced officer believes he is being empathic. This isn’t empathy in action and was further compounded by him standing over her, as she sat in tears.

This connects us to the third skill of empathy that is

Skill Three: Saying the Right Thing  (An appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotional state)

There are a few common fears when choosing the language to express empathy and these include

  • Will I say the wrong thing and make it worse?
  • If I say ‘sorry’ that might be taken as weakness or admitting I have some part to play in this.
  • I am uncomfortable handling emotions so it’s better just to get on with ‘the fix’/tell them what to do

With fears like these its common to hear inadequate attempts at empathy such as

“I’m sorry you feel that way,

what I suggest is…”

In this example the first line could be improved by saying something like

“I’m sorry that you find yourself in this difficult situation”. Sending a signal to the other that you recognise the difficulty they are going through.

And instead of marching into a solution immediately a further line of empathy is required to help settle the emotional areas of the brain in the other person. Language such as

“I can imagine how worrying /upsetting that is for you”.

This is then followed by the language of logic such as, “let me see what we can do to improve this situation, tell me… or can I suggest we/you do…”

Skill Four: Empathy is Embodied.

The house raid Police officer example also indicates the influence of our embodiment.

Towering over her as she sat sobbing, with him administering his telling off/feigned empathy, indicates that to deliver genuine empathy our whole system is involved and that includes everything including our body.

When we are truly comfortable offering empathy, so is our body. Including

  • Our posture (Open/closed)
  • Our breathing (supportive/rushed, shallow/full)
  • Our muscular relaxedness or tension
  • Our positioning (the space; distant or connected)

All of the above are linked to our personal version of our fight, flight or freeze response.

What I notice in my training and coaching is that when people struggle to demonstrate genuine empathy they also demonstrate this through their entire body and of course these signals are picked up by the other just as readily as the language we use.

For instance, its not uncommon for someone who believes, “I am uncomfortable handling emotions so it’s better just to get on with ‘the fix’/tell them what to do”, to be experiencing

  • Closed postures
  • Shallow or fast breath
  • Tense areas (Hands, shoulders, neck, upper back, jaw or forehead)
  • Spatial positioning that signals distance

As mentioned this often comes through the way we unconsciously learned our version of fight, flight or freeze. In which we unknowingly send, through the body the following signals to the other person

  • I want to force you out of this (Fight)
  • I want nothing to do with you (Flight)
  • I don’t know what to do and I hope it will go away (Freeze)

We can learn all sorts of verbal tricks to influence or empathise with another but that won’t prevent our bodies giving us away – Unless we learn otherwise.

Skills Five: Empathy for Our Self

If I am caught in any kind of judgment or blame about myself I won’t be able to show myself empathy.

There are plenty in the world that are in caring, helping and supportive roles, careers and passions. We work hard to genuinely empathise but when it comes to our self we can find that extremely difficult.

Our brains are designed to send us loops of repeating thoughts. These can be supportive but we all know just as frequently they are unsupportive, critical and judgmental.

We might have an inner critic or judge that berates us or picks holes in our supposed inadequacies.

We also get lost in perfectly normal, every day emotions such as frustration, anger, hurt, vulnerability, apprehension, excitement and sadness and we recognise they can overtake us.

Then we notice that the critic or judge is telling us off for experiencing to be expected emotions and we find our self far from self-empathy.

Crafting the ability and the skills laid out above is what we need – To be able to nurture our self, to be kind to our self. For it’s only when we can apply it ‘at home’ that we realise we can comfortably and fully share empathy elsewhere.

The next time you are struggling to empathise towards yourself or another person notice

  • The language you use or fall into
  • The judgments or blame that block you
  • Your embodiment (Your posture, breath, tension, spatial connection/distancing)

We teach empathy in all of the many private and public sector organisations we work with. I haven’t found an industry that doesn’t need it and at every level of an organisation.

Not because we haven’t got the raw materials within us to be empathic but because its still an underdeveloped and misunderstood set of skills and mind-set.

If you would like examples and resources to help you and your organisation master the skills of empathy contact me at

  • Quote-background

    Many can end up with ‘selective empathy’. Happy to demonstrate empathy for those we like and behave similarly; with little or no empathy for those who don’t.

    Glenn Bracey,
    Future Vision Training Ld,
    21st September 2015


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