Conversational Empathy


Here is an exercise for stimulating class discussion of empathy that I wrote for the conversation chapter in the next edition of Human Communication. But, I thought it might be of interest more generally.

Conversational Empathy

is a quality of interpersonal communication that involves feeling what another person feels from that person’s point of view without losing your own identity. Empathy enables you to understand emotionally what another person is experiencing. To sympathize, in contrast, is to feel for the person—to feel sorry or happy for the person, for example.
Although empathy is one of the most important qualities of interpersonal communication, expressing it is not always easy. This exercise is designed to help you identify some of the responses that are not empathic and the reasons they fail to express this essential interpersonal connection.

Here are ten possible responses to the “simple” statement, “I guess I’m feeling a little depressed.” For this exercise:

1.      Identify why each of the ten responses is (probably) inappropriate and not empathic. You may also want to consider the motivating factors that contribute to the varied responses. That is, why does someone respond as these Oranges did?

2.      Write original (but unempathic) responses for Orange 11 and Orange 12.

3.      Write what you’d consider an appropriate and empathic response. Consider too why your response is empathic. What does your response communicate that the varied responses from Orange did not communicate?  

Assume that Apple and Orange are close friends—not best friends but more than acquaintances. You may assume that Apple and Orange are two women, two men, or a woman and a man—select the genders as you wish.

APPLE: I guess I’m just feeling a little depressed.

ORANGE  1: I’ve been reading about depression and it’s all in your head. This research—it was done at NYU—showed that the ….

ORANGE  2: You depressed? Have you talked to Pat? Now that’s depression.

ORANGE  3: You’re not depressed; you’re just a bit sad. After all, that breakup could not have been easy.

ORANGE  4: Well, then, you need to get out more; let’s go and have some fun.

ORANGE  5: What else is happening? Have you talked to Chris?

ORANGE  6: Me too. I don’t know what it is but I woke up this morning and felt so depressed. I thought it was from a dream but I’m still feeling that way. Do you think I should see a counselor?

ORANGE  7: Are you? That’s really serious; it’s often a sign of suicide. Remember Pat? Got depressed after the breakup and jumped off the roof.

ORANGE  8: Reminds me of that movie—what’s the name? You know, the one with Meryl Streep?

ORANGE  9: Yeah, lots of people tell me the same thing.

ORANGE  10: Not you. I can’t believe that. I’d believe it about anybody but you.

ORANGE 11: ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­________________________________________________________.

ORANGE 12: ________________________________________________________.

EMPATHIC/APPROPRIATE RESPONSE: ________________________________


[The types of responses illustrated here were designed to represent five common but (probably) inappropriate, non-empathic responses. These are not the only kinds of non-empathic responses but they seem among the more important.

1.        Depersonalizing involves moving the conversation away from the person and the person’s feelings as in the intellectualizing of Orange 1 or the shifting of the topic away from the person speaking to a fictional example as did Orange 8.

2.        Minimizing involves lessening the importance of what the person is thinking and feeling as in the responses of Orange 2, 3, and 9 or simply denying it as in the response of Orange 10.

3.        Problem-solving involves offering solutions to the person’s feelings as in the response of Orange 4.

4.        Re-focusing involves shifting the topic focus from the person speaking to another topic as in the response of Orange 5 or to the self as in Orange 6.

5.        Catastrophizing involves making the problem seem even worse than it probably is as in the response of Orange 7.]




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