Bernie Anderson
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the blog

Current musings, whatever they may be. 

The Fine Line Between Empathy and Condescension

We've all experienced this on one side or the other. Maybe both.

 "...you don't know how I feel..."

"...you don't know how I feel..."

You've shared a piece of your life with someone, whether at a water cooler, the church lobby, or a table at Starbucks. You feel a tad vulnerable. You question. Was the conversation a mistake? TMI? Your revelations could be used against you.

The listener responds with:

"I know exactly how you feel."

How do you respond to that? You are supposed to feel better. But you don't.

I've been on both sides of this conversation, to my shame and frustration.

There's a fine line between empathy and condescension. We should be careful to stay on the caring side.

It's impossible to know "exactly" how anyone feels, even if both parties have been through the same experience. People have responses as varied as fingerprints and snowflakes, whether it be a plane crash, a job change, or having a kid. The arrogance of patronization is subtle, yet profound.

It is possible to empathize. To come alongside. To say, "I understand - and it's okay for you to feel this way, at this moment. For this time. And there's hope."

And we can do this without shifting the conversation to make it about me.

Products and advertising are similar. Some products sell themselves to us because they are an empathetic solution to a real problem.

Some products sell themselves to us because they know better than us, and we're dumb if we don't buy. Think car dealerships who scream at us to get to the lot today, or risk missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime. That's patronization. It's not empathy.

In a world of increasing "home and country first," empathy is in danger of becoming a lost commodity.

Whether you're writing advertising copy, conversing at the water cooler, or having a moment with a family member, beware of condescension. Learn to bring empathy whenever possible.

Listen for understanding.
Speak to bring hope.
Keep yourself out of the center.