Magazines 2023 Nov - Dec How to empathize

How to empathize

31 October 2023 By Carolyn O. Klassen

How good are we at forgiving, rebuking, saying sorry and the like? Let’s reflect together in this new series.


Jesus was often criticized by the religious leaders of the day for spending time with people on the margins. He didn’t judge them, He enjoyed them. He didn’t correct them, He connected with them. Jesus understood their marginalization and went to be with them (see Matthew 9, for example).

Folks who often were pushed aside and considered wrong or undesirable felt understood and cared for by Jesus. What made that possible?

Jesus had a profound ability to be empathic. He understood we’re wired for relationship – the need to connect is just as vital as food, water and oxygen.

As followers of Jesus, seeking to grow more and more into who God is calling us to be means working to see the world the way Jesus did and connect meaningfully with others.

For a decade or so, I taught graduate-level university students how to develop greater empathy and effectively communicate it. Many would start the semester with eye-rolling cynicism. They were already caring people – what was the point of a class on empathy?

But they ended the term acknowledging what had started with laughter – as they mockingly practised empathy with each other – had over the semester morphed into a superpower they were using in their personal lives with remarkable impact.

A father noticed his four-year-old had fewer tantrums. A student noticed she had gotten to know her best friend more in six weeks than she had in four years. Another student even noticed she had been able to return a shirt against store policy by persistently practising empathy with the store manager. Indeed, a superpower can be used for good or evil!

Empathy consists of several components.

Presence without judgment

Empathy sits with someone in their experience, understanding their actions and emotions from their perspective. That often requires curiosity. With a different background or set of experiences, a reaction that might not make sense from our experience is quite understandable from theirs.

Recognizing others’ emotions

As a person tells a story of tragedy, we may not connect with the car accident or the cancer, but we can recognize the underlying emotion of loss, fear, sadness and uncertainty. Relating to people out of their emotional experience allows for a person to be seen, valued and understood.

Communicating that understanding

Saying, "I understand" does not show understanding. Demonstrating that understanding is important. Saying, "You feel ___ because __" is a better approach, even though it can seem formulaic and therefore disrespectful. My students were surprised at how family (who didn’t know they were practising empathy, albeit somewhat clumsily) still "ate it up." Over time, with practice, empathic conversation becomes more natural.

Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is feeling with someone, while sympathy sees another’s pain from your own perspective. Sympathy increases distance, empathy reduces it.

Empathy is not endorsement. As part of understanding a client I can say to them, "The pain is so unbearable that in that moment cocaine seems like the only alternative," but that does not imply I endorse illicit drug use.

Empathy is also not interrogating for further details, one-upping or storytelling, consulting, correcting, educating, advising, fixing or even cheerleading. There is a place for all these in relationships, but they are not empathy.

Practising meaningful empathy first allows the other person to feel seen and valued. Empathy builds safety, trust and respect. This may then allow space for meaningful follow-up conversation.

Imagine you find out your friend’s laptop was stolen. Your impulse might be to scold them for leaving it in the car, help them start shopping for a new one, search the cloud for the backup, ask questions to help hunt it down or tell the story of when your computer was lost.

Any of those actions might miss your friend’s most immediate reaction. Perhaps it’s panic over the pictures from a treasured event that were only on this hard drive. It might be self-criticism for not having secured it properly. Perhaps it’s bringing up other losses from the past. Or the anticipated financial strain of replacing it feels overwhelming.

You won’t know until you listen. And they won’t know you’ve heard their heart until you have them experience your pure presence to what is alive in them at that moment. Empathy is deceptively simple – it is simply being with someone in their experience. This is incredibly powerful and life giving.

We all have a deep God-created need to feel seen, heard and valued. Empathy is the vehicle to meet people in that need.

Carolyn O. Klassen is a certified facilitator in shame resiliency curricula from Brené Brown. She is a therapist, speaker and writer with Wired for Connection. She also holds degrees in occupational therapy, and marriage and family therapy (

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