Whether it be giving advice as a friend, parent, spouse, or even acquaintance, those who open up to us and trust us with their personal emotions often seek comfort in conversation. Be it on matters concerning stress with work, relationships, family loss, or financial troubles, the simple act of listening and sharing in another’s feelings can lead to a deeper understanding that words cannot quite articulate.

This value that is empathy is rather instinctive in humans yet under some circumstances we may find it difficult to truly express it in situations where:

  1. We are unfamiliar with the emotions another is feeling or the circumstances they are in;
  2. A topic becomes repetitive because a specific person continuously revives the same conversation;
  3. We feel as though we know the solutions to their problems because we have dealt with similar situations in our own lives.

When communicating with our significant others, friends, or family, these personal barriers can easily be translated through our tone of voice and word choice, but also nonverbal cues to subtly but ever so presently reflect our restlessness, frustration, or assumptions to ultimately interrupt the genuinity intended in our advice. Therefore, taking conscious steps to overcome possible symptoms of disconnect are ‘mindfulness practices’ that begin with the self.

To Ronald Seigel, professor of psychology, empathy is an external but equally internal process which when communicated effectively can evolve ‘narrations’ into meaningful ‘sensations’ within relationships. Actively acknowledging any guarded behaviors, we may hold onto begins with acts of introspection. By practicing:

Presence independent of content

  • Evenly hovering our attention reminds us to remain open to what is being said and take information in as a whole.
  • Avoid focusing on elemental aspects and instead shift effort into being consciously and wholeheartedly present.

Having an intention to pay attention

  • Engaging in eye contact, providing simple encouragers such as nodding your head, preaching patience through stillness, and attending through body language can speak volumes.
  • Non verbal expressions can be equally or more contributive than words alone.

Developing affect tolerance

  • Noting that emotional reactions (frustration, boredom, angst, etc) can arise from conversations, expressing those emotions then and there can demonstrate an empathetic gesture.
  • Suppressing uncomfortable emotions, though it may come as a natural reaction, only encourages negative emotions to become lingering thoughts then attitudes. Find relief in discomfort.

Empathy can be a rather difficult trait to maintain within interpersonal relationships as it requires constant patience, attention, and open expression. By taking this approach of looking inward at our own behaviours allows us to rid of any preexisting assumption or bias that could hinder our empathic abilities when providing a safe space to listen.


Blog post by  Mackenzie Jones, Volunteer. 


(2014). Attention and Empathy in Relationships [Video file]. The Great Courses. Retrieved January 16, 2021, from Kanopy.