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Empathy: A key competency at all stages of life

Empathy is to understand and appreciate someone’s feelings without joining them; it’s a form of awareness where people feel the emotional states of others as their own.

As per Carl Rogers, the famous American psychologist, being understood is key for a person to feel secure enough to speak about their difficulties. Empathy can be considered as a four step process:

1. IDENTIFICATION: We allow ourselves to become absorbed in contemplating the other person and his/her experiences.

2. INCORPORATION: The act of taking the experience of the other person into ourselves. When we identify, we project our being into others. When we incorporate, we interject the other person into ourselves.

3. REVERBERATION: What we have taken into ourselves now echoes upon some part of our own experience and awakens a new experience. We allow for interplay between the two sets of experiences, the internalized feelings of others and our own experience.

4. DETACHMENT: In this stage of empathic understanding, we withdraw from our subjective involvement and use methods of reason and scrutiny. We break our identification and deliberately move away to gain the social and psychic distance necessary for objective analysis.

While empathy does include elements of sympathy and compassion;

• Empathy is a skilled response, while sympathy and compassion are reactive responses.

• Developing the skill of empathy is a more realistic goal for students/educators/professionals.

Cultivating empathy involves developing verbal skills collectively referred to as comfort skills. They are called ‘comfort skills’ because the receivers of empathy are expected to be comforted when a person correctly uses the skills.

Some strategies that can be used for practicing empathy are:

Parroting response

With a parroting response, you repeat verbatim what the other person has said.

Sometimes, this is said as either an exclamation or with a questioning tone of voice.

This response must be used sparingly otherwise people will shy away from saying more.



You can use your own words to recommunicate the same meaning of what was just said by the other person.


Reflection of feelings

This technique is the single most powerful verbal response you can make.

To do this, you must listen for the emotion being expressed ‘‘between the lines’’ of the person’s words and state that observation back to them.

Experience has shown that it is often helpful to start with phrases such as ‘‘It sounds like you’re feeling,’’ ‘‘I hear you saying that,’’ or ‘‘You sound… (fill in feeling word).’’ 



Sympathy is an expression of the one’s own sorrow at another’s plight. It has an ‘I’ focus expressing ‘I’m sorry’ rather than ‘poor you.’

Sympathy can validate someone’s suffering and it essentially expresses ‘You are right in feeling so; I have been through the same thing.’ This brings great comfort to someone in distress.



With compassion, you can share in the suffering being experienced by the person and express that shared experience to both strengthen and comfort them.



To console someone is to offer words of encouragement or soothing during times of suffering, pain, or distress.

You can offer consolation to a someone in multiple ways with words that are designed to inform, support, provide a different perspective, or offer hope at a time of despair.



When you are able to share experiences of distress with a someone going through the same or very similar experience- a powerful healing opportunity is created.


Reflexive Reassurance

The purpose of offering reassurance to a person is to reduce

  • anxiety
  • worry
  • and uncertainty

Such reassurance must be honest and should not offer any false hope.


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