Relating is not Empathizing

Do you consider yourself empathetic? I thought empathy was one of my greater strengths however a recent event has me rethinking one way I could connect to people in a more useful way.

I had a student who was going through an emotionally rough patch this year and she decided that she wanted to confide her situation to me. In some of our discussions I would often default to telling her some of my own story in order to show her that we had shared experiences. The reality of course is that our experiences are different, and while some events might be similar the background and the fallout is different.

It's a trap that I fall into on a regular basis I try to empathize with a person by trying to relate to them. The problem is every person is different and has a unique story and it doesn't match yours. Often times I think this tactic does more damage then good, at least in most instances.

So how do we empathize? I'm certainly no expert but I think more often then not, in these situations, people need to be listened to and they need to feel like they have been heard. Empathy is not about our own stories but trying to understand the losses being shared.