Oneupmanship, Dismissal, Pity does NOT equal EMPATHY.

Woman with Arms Crossed by Picasso

I was at a meeting recently and one of the ladies offered something sad about a parent’s death. The look on her face clearly said “I am in pain, I don’t expect anyone to fix it, I am just sharing and I just need an ear”. Clearly, at least to me.

What happened then was not uncommon, but for the first time I was able to observe and to notice what was happening in the woman who shared.

Woman A piped up with “You think that’s bad, when my parent died….blah blah blah” (read oneupmanship).

Woman B piped in with a louder voice and said “Well, it’s just stuff, right?” (read dismissal).

Woman C chimed in with “Oh poor you” (read pity).

I kept looking at the face of the woman in pain and she got really stiff and then completely shut down, as she hugged her arms across her chest tighter and tighter. It was fascinating and sad. I was fascinated at how much information she was giving with her facial expressions and body language and equally stumped as to how the other women were completely oblivious to her. I was also saddened as to the reactions of the other women. They seemed to have been trapped in a world where their opinions were the only ones that accounted for anything.

These women are all very good friends. Each one thought that they were supporting their friend. But each one had their one agenda and that was to make her feel better by making her problem seem less significant.

We all do this, without even thinking. What she needed was an empathetic ear. This was not empathy.

 According to Arn Ivey, Paul Pederson and Mary Ivey, empathy is defined as “the ability to perceive a situation from the other person’s perspective. To see, hear, feel the unique world of the other.”

Brene Brown tells us that “real empathy takes more than words- it takes work….Our words are only as effective as our ability to be genuinely present and engage with someone as she tells her story.”

Further Dr. Brown describes empathy as “the skill or ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us.”

Some ways to communicate true empathy could look something like…

“You must feel really bad about that” or

“That must have really hurt you” or

“I see that you are hurt by that”

None of the above, attempts to fix.

None of the above, places our perspective on the other or negates what the other is feeling.

All of the above, places the person in pain as the focus.

The next time someone offers you the chance to show empathy, take it as a gift to you. That person is giving you a unique opportunity to practice a skill so lacking in our world.


Love and light