Do you appear as if you give a damn? – ‘Empathy pitfalls’ and the practice of CPR©

“Don’t’ worry my boy, you are not the first, I’ve seen lots of people naked in the last 25 years” said the Doctor to my son when he was taken in for examination.

The Doctor failed to realize here that it was not about him, it was about my son’s discomfort of lying naked in front of a stranger.  While it was an attempt to reassure the patient, it lacked ‘empathy’.  In fact my son’s angry response “You might have seen many naked but I am not comfortable” put things in perspective.

“Don’t worry”; “Everything will be all right”; “It can’t be that bad”; “Like everything this one too will Passover”; “just be positive”….

Have you heard this from someone before?

Do you often rush to reassure people when they tell you their distressing stories or share their pain?


In a relationship where decisiveness and action is often valued, it is difficult not to do something to defuse others distress when it occurs. Such reassuring statements are usually made in good faith and sometimes may be probably true: that is, it is likely that everything will be all right.

Nonetheless, you would have experienced yourself that such reassurances often fail if it does not communicate an awareness of your situation.  You will agree one of the most widespread and persistent complaints today is that people don’t ‘listen’.  They blame it on being pressured for time, being preoccupied with handling their own problems, pressure to deliver results and so on….  Plenty of excuses on offer.

How many times you would have heard the following as responses to your reassurances?  “You don’t seem to understand my predicament”; “it’s easy for you to say it can’t be that bad”; “how do you expect me to be positive in such a situation”; “it’s not happening to you so you can say whatever”

All these responses are an indication that you have failed to demonstrate empathy.  An understanding of the person’s situation, perspective and feelings and to communicate that understanding back to the person.

Many times when we are confronted with distressful stories of people, we do not know how to listen empathetically.  In our anxiety to help we jump the gun and aggravate the pain further by offering reassurances which demonstrate lack of understanding.  Almost always having an adverse effect.

What do you think might work?  How can you demonstrate empathy?

I feel the CPR© (Clarify, Probe, Respond) method helps in this case.

Clarify – queries which will encourage the person to talk more about the distressing story;

  •  “Would you tell me a little more about that”
  • “What has this been like for you?”
  • “Is there anything else?”

Probe – to check if you have a clear understanding by using statements like;

  • “Let me see if I have got this right.”
  • “I want to make sure I really understand what you’re telling me.”
  • “I don’t want us to go further unless I’m sure I’ve got this right.”
  • “Please correct me if I don’t get it right, okay?”

Respond – to reaffirm and communicate your understanding of the whole situation

  • “That sounds very difficult.”
  • “I can imagine that this might feel . . .”
  • “Anyone in your situation would feel that way . . .”
  • “I can see that you are . . .”

A pause while practicing CPR© goes a long way in demonstrating empathy.  It helps others experience being understood

Too often, we hear only what we want to hear, and discount what we consider irrelevant.

What is the most ‘empathic response’ you have heard?  Add to the list..


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