One of the questions that Brené Brown is asked by students in her University of Houston course, “Shame, Empathy and Resilience,” is: “How can I be empathetic with someone who has experienced something I’ve never experienced?”
To answer this question, Dr. Brown, a well-known researcher and the best-selling author of “Daring Greatly,” asks her students to raise their hands if they’ve ever experienced grief. Then despair, hopelessness, love and joy. By the end, nearly every hand is raised. She does this exercise to show that empathy is not about sharing an event in common, but about understanding the shared experience of an emotion.
“I may not know what it’s like to be separated from my family at the border, but I know powerlessness and grief and rage and despair,” Dr. Brown said.
Over the course of 25 years, Dr. Brown and her team have studied shame and empathy by examining people’s lived experiences. What they’ve found is that empathy is a collection of four skill sets:
1. Stay out of judgment
2. Take the perspective of another person
3. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes
4. Communicate your understanding of what someone else is going through
Dr. Brown said it’s important that you don’t take on someone’s emotions to the extent that it becomes a burden, or that you co-opt their experience. “What’s the use of both of us both being in that dark place? There’s no help there,” she said. Dr. Brown uses the example of a friend calling with a marriage problem: “I have to touch in myself a place that understands that feeling, and then communicate back to you in a powerful way that you’re not alone without taking on and owning your pain.”
As you practice your empathy skills, it’s guaranteed that you will occasionally miss the mark. Don’t worry, Dr. Brown said, since this can actually help strengthen your relationships: “Circling back and cleaning up an empathic miss is as powerful, if not more powerful, than getting it right the first time.”