Cutting her off was the best thing I did. A lesson in Empathy.

Who would have thought that by me cutting off my friend in mid conversation she would have learned such a valuable lesson?

We were catching up at her house a few weeks ago after she had made me a lovely breakfast. I didn’t realize until I sat down to write this month’s blog that there had actually been a lesson in that conversation, as it turns out, for both of us.

I am a fan of the practice of empathy.  Even with all of the learning and awareness I have been doing around the skill, I still often do not recognize that it’s what I need in certain situations. Therefore I am not always able to articulate it to the person with whom I am in connection with.  This conversation with my girlfriend was one of those times.  However what I love about what happened is that even though I felt it was a conversation  in which I needed to work more on recognizing and articulating my need for empathy, it appears that my friend may have learned an even greater lesson than I did. I will let her tell the story:

Recently I was visited by a friend when during our conversation I started to give advice to help 'fix' her dilemma.  I was stopped in my tracks by her telling me that she just needed to vent.  I then just became a friend and let her speak while I just listened.  

I had recently been listening to tapes about relationships and how men listen with ears to find and fix the problem when women speak to them just wanting to vent.  I am a single lady and make my own decisions and am responsible for the outcome of all my decisions.  My friend stopping me has made me question myself.  

Have I been alone for so long that I've taken on both male and female roles?  Am I similar to a lot of other single women?  Has my need to be strong, to survive on my own hardened me?  I am desiring a loving relationship with a man but am I taking over his role which may end up pushing the potential partner away?  Have I been so strong that I forgot how to be vulnerable, to be a friend?  

My friend stopping me may have been the best thing she could have done.  Not only did she benefit by having a friend there to listen, but I benefited by remembering how to be a girlfriend. For that I thank her.

The connection I felt with my girlfriend after reading this was overwhelming. My eyes began to tear up and I could feel a lump in my throat. I called my friend to tell her how she had just deepened our relationship for me and how grateful I was to her for sharing this with me and for her being my friend.


For me this story had two great lessons in it.

  1. The need for those of us speaking to be clear about what we are needing.  I needed to just share or vent or I would have also appreciated empathy as I told my story. However I myself did not recognize it in that moment and therefore could not clearly express my need.
  2. The other lesson is in how automatic it is for so many of us to want to jump to fixing our friends problem, why else would they be sharing them with us!!!  We all want to help.

So how can we recognize when empathy is what we need and how can we then give it to the person who needs it?

Showing Empathy

One of my all time favorite books to use with my clients is Non Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Rosenberg defines empathy as “a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing.”

Remember my friend giving me advice?  Her response is no different than the majority of us; it is often our “go to” way of offering support. How many of you reading this have a job that involves customer service or problem solving all day? Over years of doing this day after day it can become our nature, after all if we want to keep our jobs we need to get good at this. But in one to one personal relationships it could be a killer.

Advice giving is also our go to response when someone is in pain or sad, we try to explain our own feelings.  Perhaps it’s because we’ve never been taught what empathy is.  Telling the other person what to do makes us feel good. It may even give us a little dopamine rush, because we did something right, from our perspective.  The problem when we do this is that we are not being present with someone and that presence is what builds the bridge to us connecting.

As Rosenberg says, empathy only occurs when we are able to successfully remove all preconceived ideas and judgements about a person.  If we are so busy giving advice or sharing our ideas then we are in that place of judgement and empathy is not present.

Brene Brown says that staying out of judgement requires understanding where we’re the most vulnerable to feeling shame ourselves. We always judge in areas where we’re the most susceptible to feeling shame.

One of the great take aways of Non Violent Communication is  the section from Holly Humphries  where she is quoted for creating a list of common behaviours that prevent us from connecting empathically with others. They are:


Shutting down

One upping






Story telling



Do you recognize these in any of your friends, family or co-workers?  How about in yourself?

It wasn’t until I read Non Violent Communication and this section of the book that I was able to put a finger on one of these behaviours from a co-worker I had.

Six years ago I found myself in a new job and as in any new job we want to make friends and get along with everyone. One particular woman felt that she and I were an excellent fit to be friends; I later learned that this was because no one else in the office wanted to spend time with her.  I liked her at first and chose to spend several of my lunches with her.

Over the next few weeks I began to observe that no matter what story I told her about myself or my life that she wasn’t ever listening. She would wait until my last words were out and then bam!! Out came her story, often started with the words, “I’ve got one even better than that.” I didn’t have the knowledge at the time to be able to articulate what it was about her that I didn’t’ like spending time with but the result was that I was choosing to speak with her less and less and finding excuses to not go to lunch with her or socialize after work. She would often say to me, I don’t know why I can’t seem to make friends…… 

When I left that job I make a conscious choice not to stay in touch.  Because I did not have the skill of empathy at that time I was unable to share with her what I needed and unable to share with her what I believe may have been having others pull away from her, just like I was doing.

Did you recognize the behaviour from the list? It’s One Upping. A very negative response that sadly can get us exactly the opposite effect of what we are wanting. It pushes others away rather than creating the connection we desire.

Want to know how to practice empathy so that you can not only offer it in your relationships but begin to ask for it when you need it?

Next month in part 2,  I will share skills to help you practice empathy from both Marshall Rosenberg’s Non Violent Communication and Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. 




Loved this blog article, Linda. You captured my attention and it was a good refresher and reminder. Can't wait for Part 2!


Thanks Kristin! I look forward to your response on part 2. 

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