Cultivating Empathy

Cultivating Empathy

Do We Really Know How Our Clients Feel?

By Douglas Flemons

July/August 2022

When I told my daughter, Jenna, that I disagree with Brené Brown’s take on empathy, she was horrified. “You’re saying Brené Brown is wrong?! She’s awesome!” A professor of social work, Brown hosts her own podcast, has a filmed lecture on Netflix, and is the author of five New York Times bestsellers. And her two TED Talks have, combined, been viewed upwards of 75 million times. As a devoted member of Team Brené, Jenna is obviously in good company.

Brown is indeed awesome. But despite her excellent research on shame, courage, and vulnerability, and despite her popularity in my family and around the world, some of her notions about empathy are off kilter. I approach the subject of empathy not as a researcher, but as a psychotherapist, supervisor, and family therapy professor with thirty years of experience.

Brown has popularized nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s recognition that empathy requires perspective taking, the avoidance of judgment, and the understanding and communication of another’s feelings. In her 2018 book, Dare to Lead, she wisely clarifies that empathy is a choice to connect. Her recommended ways of connecting with someone who’s suffering, though, are all inspired by her conception of empathy as an expression of shared feeling and analogous experience: “I get it, I feel with you, and I’ve been there”; “I know that feeling and it sucks”; “I’ve been in a similar place and it’s really hard”; “I understand what that’s like.” All…

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Topic: Grief

Tags: empathy | feelings | grief

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