In Brazil, the provision of mental health care in primary care centers has gained strategic importance, as it ensures that users will be able to attend these services within their communities, and empathy is a key aspect in the development of the doctor-patient relationship. The aim of this study was to identify characteristics related to empathy in physicians who work in primary care centers and who provide care to individuals with mental disorders. Qualitative research was carried out in 2016, based on semi-structured interviews with eight general and family physicians. Material from the interviews was analyzed using content analysis techniques and three categories emerged: empathy in the active listening of the physician, strategies that allow for better patient care, and the mobilization of emotions. The use of empathy is intrinsically linked to the resolutive capacity of care, and the characteristics identified were active listening, resource management, and the development of methods to overcome the structural obstacles of daily routines.