The Dos and Don’ts of Empathy

The day the River Thames was flooding my home, I was at a birthday party. Perhaps unsurprisingly I was not my positive, social self. In fact, I believe I was probably pretty miserable. An hour into being terrible company, someone approached to ask what was wrong.

“The river,” I said. “I’m pretty sure we have about six inches of it in our house now.”

Her reply came quickly, without thought: “Well, at least you’re not in Somerset.”

Somerset – for the non-British among you – is a low lying in Southern England that was also flooding at the time and getting a lot of TV coverage. But water is water. And when you get it in your house, it doesn’t matter much whether the press is there to watch the destruction.

Sadly, bad things that happen teach us lessons in empathy. But somehow, we struggle to translate the empathy we wish people would feel for us to appropriate empathy for others. I like to think that the trials I have gone through in my life have made me an empathy expert. But then I see myself tongue-tied – or even worse – lacking in patience or saying utterly the wrong thing – when others need my support.

So, as much as a reminder for myself as for others, here are the lessons around empathy I have learned from my darker moments:

  1. Really listen: There are tell-tale signs. You say hello. They say hello. You start talking about something or ask a question. Then they jump in and talk for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, more – clearly unhappy, and sometimes about something completely unrelated to where the conversation started. This is the indication that you need to block out all the voices in your brain that are thinking about what you’re making for dinner and listen.
  2. Avoid comparisons: Comparing their challenge to something you have gone through, or worse, the TV equivalent, can never end well. Even when actively listening, extroverts like me tend to understand people’s challenges by thinking about something similar they have been through. Don’t talk about that. This isn’t about you, it’s about them. Take that understanding you have about the situation and respond the way you wish people had responded to you. Show them you get it by the questions you ask. Even “I don’t know what to say, that sounds really hard,” or “It sounds like this is really difficult,” is better than saying “I know what you mean, when I lost my dog I felt like that too.”
  3. Don’t disregard the situation as not important: Sometimes people come to us needing support and we just don’t see what the trauma is about. Don’t they realize that things could be much worse? Why is this work issue such a big deal? Why do they feel lonely? Afraid? How can they feel sad when they have a beautiful, healthy newborn or a promotion or a new house? So what if they lose their house, aren’t they grateful to have their husband and child? Someone recently told me that grief is localized. It’s all relative. If someone is opening up to you, it’s real for them. This is a chance to give a gift of empathy. Don’t try to explain why they shouldn’t feel the way they do. Don’t disregard their challenge as insignificant. This isn’t your challenge, it’s theirs. What they want is someone to listen, and to understand that for them, right now, this is difficult.
  4. Don’t sugarcoat: When someone comes to you angry, upset, sad, needing empathy, it is a good time to take off the rose-colored glasses. A person going through something difficult doesn’t necessarily want to look on the bright side. They want to be heard. “That sounds really difficult for you,” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” go a lot further than telling them the sun will come out tomorrow.
  5. Don’t try to problem solve: Many of us are paid to solve problems. We are good at it. But in a conversation like this one, the solutions may need to wait. And once it is the time and place, brain research tells us solutions and insights are better off coming from the person who is going through the challenge, and not from us who are supposed to be listening. So save the advice, and ask questions instead. Play back what you are hearing. Help them know they are heard and that what they are feeling is legitimate.

I have yet to find someone with a perfect life. No matter how many great straws we draw, there is always one that is the shortest of the lot. And in the relatively bad times, we all need those supporters who will help us through. I hope the next time I’m given that opportunity, I apply these lessons instead of reflecting on them after the fact. And the next time I need empathy, I wish for the same.