What is an empathy miss?

Defining an empathy miss is important question, but first, it’s important that you know the different parts of empathy. If you didn’t get a chance to read the earlier blog on empathy, start here:


Now that you have the four main parts down, let’s dig into empathy misses. 

What is an empathy miss?

Empathy misses are when you try to support a struggling friend or loved one, but you get it wrong.  We all do it!   You swing and you miss.  This often makes you feel crappy, in addition to leaving your loved one hanging.  Or worse, you may not realize you did it at all.

How do I avoid an empathy miss?​

Brené Brown identifies 8 empathy misses in her research.  What is important to remember – we ALL do this.  As you read the list it may be helpful to remember a time when you engaged in an empathy miss or were on the receiving end of it, so that you can empathize with how it feels!

1. Sympathy vs. Empathy

Sympathy puts distance between you and the other person.  You feel sorry for them and what they are experiencing.  Compare this to empathy, when you are actively trying to take on their perspective. 

Sympathy example:  I feel so sorry for you!

Empathy example: I know how that feels, I’m here for you, how can I help?

2. Judgment

Judgment is when you invite shame into the situation.  

Judgment example:  You are a terrible person!  I can’t believe you did that.  

Empathy example:  I know that was a really hard decision and you did the best you could.

3. Disappointment

Disappointment is when you express disappointment in them.  

Disappointment example:  I’m so disappointed in you, you really let me down.

Empathy example: I know that was really difficult and I’m proud of how you handled it.

4. Discharging discomfort with blame

Discharging discomfort with blame is when you jump into scolding or engage in blaming, so you can discharge the discomfort you are feeling with what they are sharing.

Discharging discomfort with blame example:  Who are they?  I’m so angry at them I want to go tell them off, right now!

Empathy example:  You shared how frustrating that was for you, I’d like to hear more about how you are doing if you are willing to share

5. Minimize/Avoid

Minimizing or avoiding is when, again, because of your own discomfort, you are invested in downplaying what happened.

Minimize/Avoid Example:  I promise, it wasn’t that bad, you’re okay. 

Empathy Example: Thanks for letting me know what was going on.  How are you doing with it?  

6. Comparing/Competing

Comparing or competing is when something your loved one shares triggers your own experience.  You jump into sharing your experience instead of hearing more about their experience. 

Comparing/Competing Example:  That’s not so bad, this one time I… 

Empathy Example:  I went through something similar and it was really tough. What do you need right now?

7. Speaking Power to Truth

Speaking power to truth is when your loved one calls out someone for their dehumanizing language or behaviors and you are embarrassed or horrified that they did.

Speaking Power to Truth:  Did you have to do that?  You made things awkward for all of us during that work meeting.

Empathy Example:  I think you were really courageous to call them out.  Thank you for setting an example for me.

8. Advice Giving/Problem-Solving

Advice Giving or problem-solving is when you skip empathy and go straight to trying to “fix” the problem.   

Advice Giving/Problem-Solving Example:  I know exactly what you should do…

Empathy Example:  That sounds like it was very challenging, did I get that right? 

*Later you can always ask if they would like advice.  Give them the option, but be okay if they don’t take you up on it.

Something that you may have noticed in the examples above is that we most often engage in empathy misses because of our discomfort.  Be aware of how you are feeling and if it is impacting your ability to show up for your loved ones the way that you would like to! Again, we all engage in empathy misses.  You can work to avoid them. In addition, you can recognize when you do it, apologize and try again!

Empathy miss apology example:  You’re right, I was totally trying to fix it versus hearing what is really going on for you.  Would you be willing to let me try again?

Brown, B. (2021). Atlas of the heart: mapping meaningful connection and the language of human experience. First edition. New York, Random House.

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