• Clare Hopkins

How are you?.....How are you really?

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

Cultivating compassionate empathy to improve mental wellbeing one conversation at a time

How are you? is a statement that's used a lot, but how many times when someone asked 'How are you?' did you reply 'I'm fine thanks, how are you?' when you didn't really feel fine, however you:

  • didn't want to come across negative

  • felt it could lead to a potentially awkward conversation

  • didn't have the time or knew they didn't have the time to stop and chat

  • just said 'I'm fine thanks how are you?' automatically without thinking

How many times do you recall maybe doing the same, asking "How are you?" but it was as you walked by as you didn't really have time to engage in a conversation?

However, taking the time and care to really listen and connect to a persons response, and responding honestly about how we feel cultivates empathy for one another.


The definition is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, or in the words of the wonderful Brené Brown:

Empathy is a choice, a vulnerable choice.
In order to connect with you I have to connect with something inside myself that knows that feeling.

Previous to the COVID pandemic did you feel there was much empathy in the world?

With statistics such as 1 in 4 people experiencing a mental health issue, and rates of depression, stress and suicide increasing, I feel the evidence suggests not.

Different types of empathy

We can be empathetic about all sorts of life experiences to help us to connect and relate to others, from happy and exciting moments such as getting married, having a baby, your first job, falling in love etc. To moments where we felt fearful or sad, as we relate to another's experience of grief, losing a job, being ill, learning something new etc.

How you react or respond to situations to show empathy will be different, and I was surprised to discover there are three different types of empathy.

Cognitive empathy

  • Where someone thinks they know how another person feels, and judges what they think is their perspective in the situation.

This can be helpful in situations where you just need to understand a viewpoint not feel it, just to make an assessment/decision. However, the danger here is that we can't read another persons mind, so it doesn't put you in another's shoes and can often lead to a break in rapport if you judge it wrong!

This type of empathy is common in organisations where leaders implement changes based on their perspective of what they feel employees need rather than seeking employee input. Which just leads to a disconnect and distrust with their employees who feel misunderstood and unvalued.

Emotional empathy

  • Where someone physically feels (reacts to) the emotions of another person as though they were their own.

Whilst showing emotional empathy can be helpful in certain roles which require building interpersonal rapport with someone to help or care for them such as: therapists, doctors and nurses, HR, coaches etc. However, it can be overwhelming if someone takes on the energy of another persons emotions, especially if they are distressing emotions such as anger, sadness, grief and anxiety.

You may have come across the term 'empath' which falls into this category, as this is someone who has an ability to really feel the emotions for another person, and if they do not know how to protect their energy, they can experience empathetic distress when consistently around people who are emotionally distressed.

Compassionate empathy

  • Where someone not only feels for another's situation, but is able to choose a measured response through active listening.

This is the ideal type of empathy, as it's about achieving a good balance of being able to feel and acknowledge the emotions of another, but listening to understand and then responding (not reacting) to what is said.

Empathetic distress

A large proportion of people are Emotionally Empathetic and will be feeling exhausted with empathetic distress from hearing and seeing the many stories of people's experiences of losing loved ones, the loneliness of self isolation, job losses, being ill and coping with the after effects of catching the virus. This will be in addition to stress from their own personal experiences such as job uncertainty and handling home learning, etc.

They will feel like they are on a constant emotional rollercoaster, on one hand not feeling they can switch off from what's happening, but then needing to take a step back from the overwhelm of emotions affecting how they think, feel and act day to day.

Which is where learning to regulate thoughts and emotions will really help to move from reacting to what they see and hear to choosing how they wish to respond, this will cultivate compassionate empathy and improve their mental wellbeing.

Self regulating our emotions

Self regulating is not about suppressing our emotions and therefore how you feel, as built up emotions will eventually spill out and affect your mental and physical wellbeing. We certainly can't stop or clear our minds of the 40 - 70,000 thoughts we think each day!

Self regulating is about being observant of our thoughts and emotions, then consciously choosing which thoughts and emotions we want to feel in the moment. With practice you will soon start to identify patterns of thoughts and emotions that are unhelpful, so you begin to create new patterns of behaviour. You will find tools to support your observations and self awareness such as mood charts, journaling, meditation, mindful activities etc. which will all enable you to feel more empowered.

Some helpful self reflective questions to consider are:

  • What is your strategy to handling your emotions when empathising with what's currently happening? Is it helpful?

  • What would be a more helpful strategy to handle your emotions with empathy now and going forward? How will you implement this?

It's only when we feel comfortable with understanding and managing our own thoughts and emotions that we are able to have meaningful conversations with others about theirs.

Compassionate empathy after lockdown ends

This pandemic has affected everyone at some level and the lockdowns have given us a lot of time to learn more about ourselves and what's really important to us. We have come to realise how many of our daily activities we took for granted, but especially the face to face connections with others.

So as we ease out of lockdown and start returning to work, meeting up with friends or family, the next time someone asks "How are you?" I hope we all stop and respond honestly to really connect, and when we ask the same question, we stop and really listen and connect with that person. That way we can all contribute to improving each others mental wellbeing one conversation at a time!

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