Brené Brown on Empathy



Can you think of times in your own life when you were practicing sympathy instead of empathy?


  • In your interactions with others this week, try practicing all four qualities of empathy identified in the video.
  • Remove “at least” from your vocabulary.
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  • I like this. I am a little skeptical of empathy, as it can distract us from the work we need to do to “stop the rain” (using the video metaphor). The pain of deeply truly feeling something someone else is feeling may actually prevent us from doing anything at all. It is indeed true that often times there is nothing we can do for that person ‘s pain in that particular moment. But rarely is there NOTHING we can do to prevent someone else from feeling that pain in the future. (Eg., giving a hungry person some leftovers on the street vs. giving to our local non-profits who try to make it easier for someone to get a job to feed themselves)

    • I don’t think that empathy is about deeply and truly feeling the pain of the other person. It is about understanding and accepting them during this painful time. Let’s use the example of losing someone. If that little fox lost their mother, there is no way that bear can completely join the fox in their grief and feel their feelings. The bear didn’t live that fox’s life and didn’t have the connection the fox would. The bear also shouldn’t have any expectation that they can prevent that feeling in the future. Empathizing is listening and understanding and being there for the fox. Your examples, thexats, of giving food to a hungry person or giving to a local non-profit to help them get a job are actually examples of sympathizing. Empathizing would be to listen to this person and understand why they may not have a job or the reasons they are hungry and understand how they feel and why. This hungry person may not be able to get a job and assuming that you can just give money to an organization to “fix” it, is no better than saying “at least…” By then understanding this person and their reasons and “pains”, it is possible to work towards designing something to help them, but maybe they just need someone to be there to listen and understand. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that you shouldn’t help the hungry or be willing to donate money to organizations to help people. That is wonderful and it is so wonderful to help people. The video isn’t saying sympathy is bad. It is about understanding when sympathy is appropriate vs. empathizing when appropriate. With the jobless person, they may not want a job and sympathizing would have missed that, whereas empathizing could have caught that.

  • I have seen this great little video before and boy is it hard not to try to “cheer up” someone – especially if you are a positive person or see the other person as waiting for this type of response. Always good to practice thank you the empathy check. I also find the physical response (a touch on the shoulder, arm or hand) can sometimes not be welcoming to people of differing cultures or genders so the acknowledgement that comes by a physical demonstration has to be invited.

  • Do we act out of sympathy in order to protect our vulnerability? … in order to not be vulnerable?

  • This is good to really visualize the difference between sympathy and empathy. It’s a good reminder of what not to say….. hearing it on the video makes it sound so dismissive “at least”. It takes a lot of energy to be empathetic and for myself, in this day and age, sometimes I feel as if I don’t have the time to take the time.

  • Dianne Boston-Nyp

    Hugs ARE the answer! I knew it! Sometimes words fail and the presence of a compassionate ear is all people need. Time as you say Sherrie – we have to slow down and take time to listen and understand.

    • Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast. (Shakespeare) When we slow down, we take more in, and the experience is thus enriched because we are more aware of our surroundings and how they may impact us…

  • christiane sadeler

    I think we all want to be witnessed and empathy is extreme witnessing.

  • ‘at least’, ‘it could’ve been worse’….I was born a natural ‘silver lining’ maker and it has been challenging to shake it. I saw it as being positive, but I’ve learned it’s dismissive. I don’t want to be dismissive. I’m going to keep working on it.

  • I love my husband so much, but I call him “solution man”. Whenever I tell him how I’m feeling or a problem I’m having, he instantly jumps into solution mode to try to help me. Even thought the sentiment is very much appreciated, I have thought of every possible solution and just need to sit with the feeling for a time. I think of one of my favourite quotes form the show “Parks and Recreation”. “You’ve fallen into the classic trap of trying to fix someone’s problem instead of just listening to what it is. Next time, just stay silent, look into their eyes, take their hand and say, ‘That sucks.'”

  • Thanks for sharing.

    Being empathetic is to being able to recognize and relate to other’s emotions. Recognition and understanding are important!

  • I wonder if empathy can be more than being vulnerable and connecting with something in yourself to share the feeling. I saw a Facebook post recently that said something like “normalize having empathy for people without knowing what they’re going through” and I’ve been thinking about it a lot – I know I have definitely struggled to show empathy unless I’ve had the same or similar situation happen to me. Something that my partner and I have started to do before talking about something that’s happened (or a feeling either of us have) is express what we need from the conversation whether that’s “I’m looking for advice on this and I’m open to solutions” or “I just want you to listen”.

  • “Rarely can a response make something better”. I have to learn this! Usually I try to either cheer someone up (“at least”) or try to offer a solution. I think I respond this way because I think the person is searching for a solution, when, in fact, they just need someone to listen.

  • A lot of times, when a friend tells me about their problem, I try to think of solutions and say ‘well, did you try this? or did you try that’ and now I see that the friend has likely already thought of all these solutions to their problem, and they really just need someone to listen and understand that they are frustrated or upset. I’m going to try really hard to be a better listener and not as much of a fixer.

  • Sometimes we need to give ourselves “permission” to feel what we are feeling. It’s important to note that feeling is not a form of self-pity, but a right to acknowledge how we are feeling in that moment. When someone is empathetic to us, we share the feelings with another to not be judged, but to share with another. We are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and inviting in another into our sadness, shame, frustration…It’s ok to share-that’s what sets us apart.

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