Using Empathy to Defuse Distress

January 28, 2018
Carolyn C. Shadle, PhD

John L. Meyer, PhD

Empathy is a secret power that can defuse distress and resolve problems. Here’s how to wield that power.

Think back to when you had to deal with a tragedy of some kind. Something minor but distressing, like losing your wallet, or something major, like when you or your pet experienced an illness or injury. Did you notice how people responded when you shared your distress? Were they empathetic?

It’s the rare person who listens and focuses on your tragedy — minor or major — and encourages you to share, vent, cry or just talk. That’s empathy, and it’s powerful.

Why is it powerful? Because it shows you care. It shows you care more effectively than if you were to say, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” or, “I know how you feel,” or, “I know, that happened to me when…” It’s powerful because it maintains the focus on the other person and not on you.


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Why is it such a secret power? Because most people are not aware of what it takes to show empathy. Here are the secrets to showing empathy.


That means saying nothing. Don’t respond with your own story. Remain silent. It’s awkward, because you will want to fill the air with words, but resist. Remain silent and notice how the other person provides further description of the tragedy. Couple your silence with good eye contact and body language that shows you are listening. Perhaps you will nod as the person speaks, or maybe you will lean toward the person speaking. That is usually all that is needed to let this person know you care. You will be surprised at how eager they are to share, vent, cry or just talk.

Offer an invitation for the other person to talk.

Sometimes silence is too difficult. If so, say something like, “Tell me about it,” “Say more” or “I’d like to hear your story.” That invitation will assure the other person that you are truly interested. Continue to avoid telling your own story as tempting as it is. Rather, maintain your focus on the other person.

Listen for both feelings and words.

As this person unfolds their loss, injury or disappointment, make an effort to detect their feelings behind their words. Sometimes people will tell you how they feel, as in, “I’m so angry…” or “I’m really sad that….” But often people are not aware of how they feel or are unwilling to speak the words. You might hear instead, “Fluffy is lethargic,” or, “I couldn’t find a place to park anywhere near your clinic.” Your challenge — and opportunity — is to debrief the comment and determine this person’s feelings.

Respond with the feeling you have detected.

This is often called “active listening” or, more precisely, “reflective listening.” The latter term describes what you are doing when you respond; you are holding up an emotional mirror to reflect the speaker’s feelings, letting the speaker “see” the feelings they have expressed. Your response might sound like this: “You are feeling…” or, “I sense that you are [insert feeling] about this,” or maybe, “Wow. I hear you” (matching your tone with that of the other person).

Now, watch the magic.

Your reflective listening will encourage the individual to provide more details. Your response will help to defuse their anger, fear or distress. Calmed, feeling heard and cared for, they are often able to then resolve the problem (like finding the missing item, defining what steps to take, asking for specific help or coming to terms with their loss).

Not all problems are solved instantly and not all injuries are reversed, but being heard and cared for goes a long way toward maintaining the relationship necessary to bring about a resolution. It’s magic.

Dr. Shadle earned her doctorate in interpersonal and organizational communication at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Dr. Meyer earned his doctorate in communication studies and speech arts at the University of Minnesota. They write and train through Interpersonal Communication Services, Inc. They have trained veterinary professionals at numerous national and international conferences.