Empathy is one of those qualities that we hear about every day, and most people claim to show, but then goes missing when you need it most.

Why is that, exactly?

The answer is complex, and has much to do with our perception--both of ourselves, and others. (I write about this extensively in my forthcoming book.)

But the truth is, most people don't truly understand what empathy is in the first place.

Some have described empathy as feeling another person's pain in your heart. It's different than sympathy, because it goes further. (More on that here.)

But if you want a really great explanation of empathy, I recommend the following video, where film star Mark Ruffalo points out some key features of the quality that many take for granted. He did so on one of my favorite educational programs in the field of psychology and emotional intelligence:

Sesame Street.

The clip is actually over five years old; but watch just five minutes of the news, and you'll see that its message is as relevant as ever.

What So Many Get Wrong

Ruffalo begins by defining empathy to his puppet friend, Murray: Empathy is when you're able to understand and care about how someone else is feeling.

In this definition alone, we see where many go wrong when it comes to empathy:

It's about understanding another person's feelings, not necessarily the actual experience.

This isn't as easy as it sounds, because the natural tendency is to try and get the other person to see our perspective, when we should be trying to see things from theirs.

Dr. Hendrie Weisinger, best-selling author of Emotional Intelligence at Work, explains this well:

The point is to remember a situation in which you felt the same way, not necessarily the same experience. If a person says, "I screwed up a presentation," I don't think of a time I screwed up a presentation--which I have, and thought, no big deal. Rather, I think of a time I did feel I screwed up, maybe on a test or something else important to me. It is the feeling of when you failed that you want to recall, not the event.

This is illustrated well in the Sesame Street video. Ruffalo tells Murray a story about how he lost his "favorite teddy bear."

Murray attempts deeper understanding with a question: Did you love that teddy bear? (I think we all know the answer to that one.)

But it's Murray's following response that really drives things home. In tears, he says:

"I can imagine...exactly how you feel."

Now, it's very possible that Murray has never experienced the exact same situation as his friend Mark. (That is, assuming that Murray wasn't an inanimate object.) Maybe, he's never even had a teddy bear. But he can use his imagination to try and envision a situation where he did feel similar. And in doing so, Murray can better relate to his friend's feelings--allowing him to adjust his communication and actions in a way that builds up, rather than (unwittingly) tears down.

Murray's wrong about just one thing: We can't imagine exactly how another person feels. Because as individuals, our feelings are our own. But in trying to show empathy, we get a lot closer than we would otherwise.

It takes work to use our imaginations in this way. But when others see your attempts to truly understand them, they're much more willing to listen to anything you have to say.

Parting Thoughts

Feelings are complicated, and that's one reason why empathy is so easily misunderstood.

But whereas bad teachers take simple ideas and make them difficult, good teachers make the truly difficult, simple.

And for that, we say: Thanks, Sesame Street.