Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

One thing I hear from my clients (frequently men) is: “I’m really sensitive, I just don’t show it. I have the ability to cry.” Many men see showing vulnerability and leaning into their emotions as weak. This results in men hiding or “stuffing” emotions.

Men may not connect to their emotions, but they are driven by them, sometimes unconsciously. Specifically, the emotions of fear, frustration, hurt or pain show up as anger and rage followed by the “move” of withdrawal.

For example, many times a typical response for a man in conflict with a significant other is to get angry and rageful. Then he shuts down by withdrawing because he doesn’t want to deal with it anymore. Comments like, “I just can’t win” or “I’m gonna get in trouble if I stay and yell or I’m gonna get in trouble if I leave” are common during this phase.

If emotional intelligence is the goal, this is not where we want to be.

When you google emotional intelligence, the definition that comes up is: the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.

Some people are naturally empathetic while others are not although they think they are being empathetic. An example of this is: “I’m sorry you lost your job but you’re smart and motivated so you’ll get another one.” Unfortunately, this is more sympathy than empathy.

But empathy…that’s the same as sympathy, right?


Brene Brown, an American scholar, author, and public speaker, has spent years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. She made a video comparing empathy and sympathy that beautifully and simply illustrates the difference.  

Empathy drives connection while sympathy drives disconnection.

Additionally, Theresa Wiseman, a nurse scholar, created four defining attributes of empathy that Brown references in her work. Those qualities are:

  1. The ability to recognize the perspective of another person as truth.
  2. Staying out of judgment.
  3. Recognizing emotions in others.
  4. Communicating emotions with others.

Wiseman also defines empathy as a skill, and stresses the importance of actively practicing giving and receiving empathy.

How do you practice giving empathy?

First, you need to connect with the emotion you’re feeling. Think about the thought that is driving that emotion in order to feel it. This allows you to lean into conflict instead of leaning out. Instead of walking away from conflict, stand your ground and put up a healthy boundary. For example,

“Help me understand. I see you’re angry, I don’t want that for you.”

This helps the other person evaluate why they are upset. Another good phrase is:

“How do you want me to be right now?”

This is inclusive. There is no blaming, no judgment, and no accusation.

Both of these statements are important because they are not about you being heard, but they are instead about listening to the other person. This is hard since it is easier to react (poorly) to the attack we perceive is happening to us. However, what’s happening for the other person is about them not you.

You may not understand the thought or why the person feels that way, but you will more than likely connect with the emotion of what they are saying because you’ve probably felt that way before, too.  And it is in that understanding of their emotion (empathy!) where you can connect to what they are feeling. That’s the sweet spot!

When you are in conflict and you take the other person’s perspective, THAT is being truly empathetic and that is what the other person is seeking.

Another good statement:

“I can’t fix it, but I can be here with you. I’m glad you shared that with me and I’m truly sorry you feel that way.”

The connection is in sharing the emotion, not fixing it and certainly not running away.

In connecting with the emotion you are leaning into the conflict, you are leaning into vulnerability. This shows strength, not weakness. This drives a connection.

Emotional intelligence is not just connection and empathy but also being aware of, controlling, and expressing one’s own emotions.

For example, the statement: “He makes me so angry.” People don’t MAKE us feel any certain way. When we are processing a conflict, it’s the thought we create around what is happening that creates our emotion. WE are in charge of that, no one else. If you get angry, it is because you are choosing to be angry.

So, gentlemen, the key to building strength through emotional intelligence is leaning into the emotion you are feeling. Name it, feel it, sit with it, talk to it, acknowledge it, thank it for being a part of you, and then decide how you would like to respond in a relational way to strengthen your connection versus in an individual way weakening your connection.

This approach is not only great for personal relationships but it also works well in professional relationships. It helps people respond to stress versus reacting to it.

Emotional intelligence is two parts. It’s connecting that the emotion you’re feeling is what YOU create through your thoughts and YOU are responsible for that. But it is also being empathic to the other person’s emotion by finding a part of it that you can connect with. You need both parts to be truly emotionally intelligent.


Mark Glover

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