Empathy is a Practice


My thoughts from Brené Brown’s 3rd class in the Living Brave semester…

Empathy and self-compassion… such a simple title but I knew I was in for it. Empathy AND self-compassion, not just one of the other but both! I was going to walk away from this lesson with a black eye thanks to Brené’s one-two punch. There is significant room for improvement in my life in these two areas.

Today, let’s just go with the first jab and focus on empathy.
It has taken me awhile to understand what empathy is. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not very good at it. My own definition of empathy is simple… it’s grace for others. It’s getting in the trenches with a friend and simply being there. It’s not about taking up the fight for her but it’s listening through the fight. It’s not about solving the problem but it’s upholding her without condemnation.

It’s pure grace.

Brené ushers us into an arena and she points out that the first people we experience are the critics. (Mind you… these critics aren’t the ones even in the arena. They’re just sitting in the seats watching events unfolding.) Critics hurl insults. Critics tell us we have no idea what we’re doing. Critics ask us who we think we are playing in this arena. Critics tear down any value and self-worth we have.

Sometimes the critics look a lot like the woman in the mirror.

So how do we silence these critics?

Yes… including ‘her’.

According to Brené, first we have to connect with why we’re being brave and stepping into the arena. Why have we chosen to show up and be seen?

And secondly… we need to have someone in our lives that supports us by practicing empathy.

Reflecting on my definition of empathy as grace for others, I asked myself if I have someone in my life that practices empathy? It’s a question worthy of exploration. If I’m going to show up and be brave, who can I count on to be in my corner? Who will offset the jeers of the critics? Who will extend me grace instead of beating me up just like everyone else?

In this lesson, Brené says we need to share with someone who embraces us for our strengths and struggles – someone who has earned the right to hear our story. But finding that someone takes practice. When it comes to empathy, it’s often about connecting with the right person at the right time about the right issue.

I’ve spent time looking for evidence of empathic tendencies in my friends. When I share something personal and vulnerable, where I feel totally exposed, how does my friend respond?

Does she:

  • Validate my feelings by agreeing that I should be completely ashamed of myself? (warranted)
  • Feel sorry for me? “Oh you poor thing…” (sympathy)
  • Say she’s disappointed in me and tells me how to make better choices?
  • Scold me (judgment) or want to take a hit out on another person in the situation (righteous anger)?
  • Minimize the situation by dismissing it?
  • Compare it to her experience and then one-up me with her own story? (competing)

These are all what Brené calls empathic misses where we’re presented with an opportunity to practice empathy and we blow it.

Do some of my friends blow it? Sure. Do I blow it? Of course. It just means we’re human and we need to know more about how to respond empathically. Some have it and like me, some don’t. Empathy doesn’t come naturally so we need to 1) practice it and 2) ask for it when and how we need it.

So how do we practice empathy?

Brené shares Theresa Wiseman’s four attributes of empathy:

  1. Perspective taking – we look at things from another person’s point of view.
  2. Stay out of judgment – we don’t place blame, guilt, or shame.
  3. Recognize emotion – ‘What I hear you saying is…’
  4. Communicate emotion – we feel with the person and not for the person.

For me, empathy is listening to a friend share an ugly, vulnerable moment and I take extra care to see it from her perspective… it’s her truth. I get curious about it but not in an interrogative way. Being empathic is asking questions to open a dialogue to better understand her thoughts and feelings.

The next critical step is to intentionally stand firm in a no-judgment-zone where I’m neutral when it comes to blame and shame. I say ‘Gosh… I’ve felt that way before… you’re not alone’ and mean it. And then I simply listen and don’t solve it for her. I try to consciously remain in the light of grace.

A moment of introspection… standing in a no-judgment-zone is a new space for me. I constantly need to remind myself to stay out of judgment, especially if I’m involved somehow. I’m also quick to give advice and offer solutions so asking permission to share my opinion before I blurt it out is something I’m practicing. Whew… empathy isn’t easy!

Being a Mom who is practicing empathy…

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been practicing empathy in the ‘friend arena’ with my daughter. She is 10-years-old and the friend drama has been happening for a few years now. The girls are jockeying for position and the BFF-merry-go-round is spinning so fast the horses are taking flight.

I notice what I’ll call an ‘ownership mentality’ between the my daughter and her friends. Lauren will come home and share the comments she hears on the playground. “You are MY friend so you can’t play with Suzie during recess.” “Why are you playing with Jill when you’re supposed to be MY friend?” “We can’t be friends anymore because you’re friends with Amy.”

I start to go through my 4 empathy attributes…

“Gosh… I remember when I was in 5th grade and the same thing happened to me.” “How does it make you feel when your friend says that?” “What do you think your friend feels when you play with other girls?” “What does your friend need to hear from you when she feels that way?” And then we start talking about what it means to be a marble jar friend.

I don’t EVER want my daughter to feel like I’m blaming her or shaming her when the friendship merry-go-round is spinning. I don’t want her to feel like she has disappointed me, or that I’m minimizing her feelings by stating it’s ‘simply a phase you’re going through’.

She needs to know I understand how messy friendship is and that we all need to work on it to have meaningful, lasting friendships. My goal is to help her see that the gifts she offers to her friends are valuable, just as her friends have valuable gifts too. I’m teaching her to respond empathically to her friends because we all need someone in our corner when the critics are loud. That’s what real friends do.

By practicing empathy with Lauren when she’s ten, I hope I’ll be the one she still turns to when she’s fifteen. I know she’s going to feel pretty beat up in the arena of her life five years from now. Snapshots of shame flash through my mind from my own junior high and high school years. These were tough years for me as I struggled to believe in myself and claim my self-worth.

Daughters need their mothers to be empathic… to extend grace instead of shame and blame.

We need to harness the parenting pause and listen without judgment, seek to understand not condemn, and be mindful of our children’s vulnerabilities as a learning process. Empathy cultivates self-worth. Empathy invites belonging. Empathy is what makes us get up and dust ourselves off when we’re knocked down in the arena.

Check out this awesome video where a bear and a fox teach us about empathy…


Am I someone who can be empathic when a brave friend shares her struggles in the arena? Will I respond with truth and grace instead of telling her what she wants to hear? Before Brené’s third lesson… no, probably not. After Brené’s third lesson… a resounding yes! I will have empathic misses but I’ve learned a hard lesson I’ll be sharing in my next post… stay tuned.

Enough about me! Let’s bring this back around to you. What have you learned about empathy? Do you have someone that will practice empathy when you feel like you’ve just lost the round? If not, how can you find that person and tell her what you need? Are you a true friend or mother who can extend grace when someone needs it from you?

As always, thank you for taking this journey with me and I look forward to your comments.