You’re having one of those days when everything is going wrong, and a friend happens to call you. They ask how you are, and you tell them you got a flat tire on the way to your partner’s house, only to have them break up with you when you got there. You are heartbroken. Your friend is quiet.
You’re glad to vent and get it off your chest. Maybe you feel heard, too, and understood… until they break the silence with the following:
“Yeah, maybe take the bus next time.”
You’re not sure if they’re kidding, but they go on to say: “To be honest, I never thought you were a good match, and you should never have gone out with him. I think you should just move on.”
You can’t believe what you just heard. Not only do you feel hurt, but now you wish you hadn’t told them anything at all. That’s because you weren’t looking to be judged. You were looking for empathy.
There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to communication and empathy. Here are a few important truths to keep in mind when you’re working on being there for someone who is struggling.
You don’t need to find a solution or ‘’fix’’ someone’s problems in order to help them
Our lives are such that we are often in ‘’problem solving’’ mode. It is our ‘default’ when something’s difficult or going wrong. At work or school, for example, we might feel it’s absolutely urgent to finding a solution for any issue that comes up. And maybe it is. But when it comes to other people’s feelings, rushing into fix could be a mistake. Difficult emotions can’t be ‘’fixed.’’ We just need to be ok with them, to accept them, and to sit with our friend and their feelings as they work through a rough time.
Offering ‘’harsh truth’’ or ‘’tough love’’ often isn’t helpful
As humans, we all have cognitive biases. That means that our way of interpreting situations can be influenced by many things (our way of seeing the world, our beliefs, our values, etc.). Unfortunately, those biases are not always accurate and can lead us to analyze things based on stereotypes. One very common cognitive bias is the ‘’you get what you deserve’’ bias. A friend telling us they had a flat tire might lead us to think: “If you’d just taken the bus, that would not have happened.’’ Not only is this faulty reasoning, but it is especially unhelpful to hear when you’re in turmoil. We can sometimes learn from our mistakes and may be somewhat responsible for unpleasant things that happen to us but pointing them out to someone before showing them empathy might not just lead to them closing up. It might also damage the relationship.
You don’t need to be a mental health expert or a psychotherapist to show empathy to someone
If you have been to therapy before, you may have thought it was radically different than a regular conversation with a friend. A therapist’s approach is special, but one of their “secrets” is their way of listening. They don’t listen to judge. Instead, they listen to understand what we’re going through which makes their support significant and helpful. This way of listening is a skill, and we can all learn it.
If you’re not sure what to say, that’s perfectly ok
When we’re listening well, we’re not thinking of ourselves, about our own opinions or what we would have done differently. The way of empathy is to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It is not to tell them we take a different size or we don’t like the laces they picked. Empathy means tuning into the other person’s unique experience. So next time a friend, a family member or a colleague shares something difficult with you, instead of trying to find the perfect thing to say or to solve their problem, start by making sure you are really listening and actively showing empathy. If you listen and show you care, you’re already more than halfway there.