People Skills Empathy: Do We Give It or Project Our Needs?

People skills and empathy are words we often hear in the same sentence. People skills empathy — go hand in hand. Feeling what others feel (empathy) overcomes the me syndrome and people skills build the connection. Sounds good.

Now for the vital question …

Do we give empathy?

Or do we actually project our feelings and need onto others?

People skills empathy is represented by a plug going into a wall.

People Skills Empathy: Do We Give It or Project Our Need? Image by:EvatheWeaver

Image by Eva the Weaver via Creative Commons License.

People Skills Empathy or Projection?

True empathy connects people. Projecting feelings and calling it empathy creates space between people. If you think you are giving empathy yet find the response is cold or negative, you may have projected your feelings and needs onto them!

  1. Is Fear Blocking Empathy?

    Are you comfortable with engagement and connecting with others? Or, do you fear that it leads to entanglement? This fear of entanglement can block empathy. Yet few people want to admit they aren’t empathetic. Projection kicks in as a comfortable replacement.

  2. Are You Comfortable Being Equal?

    Empathy and engagement represent equal footing with others. How does equality feel to to you? Good or bad? Do you prefer to always feel like the one who can fix things? If you are thinking of your need instead of theirs you will project it. This blocks true empathy.

  3. Empathy: Inbound Before Outbound.

    Empathy starts as an inbound activity. Great questions, relinquishing judgment, and (for some people) intuition collect the feelings data. Processing that information produces empathetic behavior.

    Skipping the inbound step makes it impossible to send out empathy. Projection will take over.

Practical Steps to Empathy

  1. Self-awareness smooths the way. The more self-aware we are, the less likely that projection will block or conquer empathy.

  2. Gather input with great questions. If you are intuitive, verify your intuition. This prevents projection.

  3. Get comfortable with statements that show connection without immediate action. “I feel for you … Wow that’s horrible… or, how wonderful” are just a couple of suggestions. The phrase “I understand” can be troublesome for it sounds generic and overused.

  4. Clarify if someone wants advice or just empathy. This is a biggie! Some people just want to be heard. Sometimes they are not ready to take action. Other times they have already decided what they will do. They just want the energy of connection with others.

  5. Be ready for the input to be positive! We most often think of empathy as feeling someone’s pain. How about empathy as a celebration of someone’s triumph over pain? When people are pulling themselves up and want empathy for their effort, it’s maddening to receive a “let me in to help you in your pain” response.

People skills empathy can build tight bonds for success in ways that no other skill can. It isn’t limited to painful moments.

It is the moments where we connect without artifice, hidden agenda, manipulation, or domination. It is the purity of empathy that builds incredible trust and sustains us both now and in the future.

From your experience, what else blocks or enhances our ability to feel and show empathy?

From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

Related Post:
Super People Skills Mindset: 3 Basic Beliefs

©2013 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. I appreciate your sharing the link to this post on your social streams. However, if you want to re-post or republish the content of this post, please email Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on leading change, employee engagement, teamwork, and delivering the ultimate customer service. She turns interaction obstacles into interpersonal success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.

7 Responses to “People Skills Empathy: Do We Give It or Project Our Needs?”

  1. Excellent post Kate!

    You asked: From your experience, what else blocks or enhances our ability to feel and show empathy?

    One word: Triggers. If someone else’s situation ‘triggers’ a pain spot in me. That’s the danger zone. That’s when we tend to go automatically ‘unconscious’ in the moment as sometimes intense feelings/emotions surface. It really takes practice to be mindful enough to stay ‘awake’ or to rebound quickly when we notice it’s happening.

    As a more personal example, I was in danger of this very thing with my own daughter. Luckily, I was aware as soon as I felt it happening. First of all, I’m so proud of her. She’s 20 and living away from home and very responsible young woman. Anyway, one of her cats has been diagnosed with lymphoma. When she first called me from the vet I had misunderstood her to mean that it was a brain tumor. It wasn’t. It’s a grapefruit sized tumor in his abdomen. She came over last night after the vet to share all that happened and explore her options, etc. As she was talking, I was acutely aware of her emotions and I could see that she was near tears. Then I felt overwhelmed with emotion because I was thinking ‘Oh no…this is probably bringing up very painful memories about her dad dying and more loss’ etc etc So I was in DANGER of wanting to perform a ‘rescue’ by tacking on the other ‘grief’ stuff on top of the cat. (some emotional enmeshment going on here) In addition to that, there was also the ‘mom’ factor. She hasn’t been away from home for all that long and so it’s equally challenging getting used to the fact that she is now an adult who is making the decisions and that part of things is no longer my job.

    So that was my big challenge yesterday. Recognizing that she doesn’t need me to jump in and perform a ‘rescue’. She simply needs me to listen to what she experienced, what she was feeling, talk about the options and choices, and then be a sounding-board when she asked me what I thought, etc.

    Fortunately, I was able to ‘stay awake’ enough to provide what she really needed. Although as a mom, I still do NOT like it when I know my children are hurting! haha

    Thanks again for such a great post.


    • Kate Nasser says:

      Wow Samantha. You hit it on the nose … “triggers”. Perhaps the best word to summarize the moment. Very gracious and generous of you to share your personal story. It both illustrates the point and shows others how to handle (diverse) triggers in their lives.

      This Sunday’s #peopleskills chat on Twitter is on the topic of empathy. I would love for you to join and share all your insights if you can be there. 10AM ET/3pm GMT.

      Many thanks again for your generous contribution here.


  2. Jon Mertz says:


    Several great points here. Fear is a big one in being empathetic, meaning some situations make us uncomfortable. They are new, real life situations that take us place emotionally we don’t always like to go. Life happens all around work, so we need to tune in and really listen. We need to be ready to be uncomfortable and lean in to the story and really understand the dynamics. Solving can come later; empathy comes first in some situations. We need to be comfortable with that.

    Look forward to the continued conversations on this topic. Thanks!


    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thank you Jon. Great point … lean in and listen. Some people are highly intuitive others need to ask questions to find someone’s feelings/needs yet both work.

      Truly looking forward to this Sunday’s #peopleskills Twitter chat on empathy. (10AM ET/3PM GMT).

      Til then …

  3. Neca says:

    Great post Kate…and very much needed in today’s work environment and the world in general! All of your tactics for practicing empathy were really on target. I really connect with the skill of learning to make comments without immediate action. It goes hand in hand with another skill in empathetic response which is to be interested in others by asking clarifying questions. It leaves individuals feeling as though you want to know what’s going on in their world and most importantly, they feel heard. All leaders would do well to model this skill for their employees!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thanks Neca. Nice addition of “leaders would do well to model it for all their employees to learn”. Agreed!

      Hope you will contribute your insight frequently to these people skills posts here at Smart SenseAbilities

  4. Charlie says:

    Hi Kate
    I like your thoughts and agree that empathy in the work place is long overdue. Perhaps I could add a few bits.
    If I was being picky, I don’t think you can “give” empathy – You can “be” empathic and you can show you have some understanding of what it is like for the other person, but you can’t give it. A phrase I really like is “listening to the music behind the words”. It means hearing what is being communicated if not actually said. Checking out what you think you have heard is best done tentatively. e.g It seems to me that you are a bit afraid at the moment.
    In my experience asking lots of questions shifts the agenda to what you want to know about, and takes you away from being empathic. As you say sometimes people just want to be heard. When they feel heard they will usually tell you what is on their mind anyway.
    Dare I say that statements like “I feel for you” (I agree it is yuccky) and “that must be horrible” are really expressions of sympathy – which is useful too but is not empathy.
    I am very wary of saying things like “I understand completely or “I know what you must be going through” – because invariably I don’t.
    Finally, for those who are interested, the work of Carl Rogers captures your thoughts and some, and is well worth exploring.
    Thanks for bringing up a really important subject

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