Day 30: Empathy

In the past when people came to me with their problems, I used to do something really, really stupid. I’d try to fix them. Crazy right?

But we all do this. We offer advice or sympathy because we’re secretly hoping that we can fix the suffering of the person in front of us. But this never works for one simple reason: people aren’t broken.

They may be suffering and upset, but they are never, ever broken. Which is why the best thing you can do to help someone who is going through a rough time (including yourself) is to be willing to be present, to listen, and to let them know you’re there for them.

But doing this well is hard. You’ve seen so many examples of less effective ways to do this.

How to Practice Empathy

Empathy is simply the the practice of being present with others, but it can be expressed in many ways. It can be expressed through deep listening, curious reflection, and skillful requests or offers of support.

While empathy has many forms there are a few approaches I often see people use when they are trying to connect. While these approaches are not wrong or bad, it’s important to know that they aren’t empathy as well as understand why they don’t work.

Here are things that aren’t empathy:

1. Advice –
This may seem obvious, but this is the one approach most people use when someone comes to them with a problem. But I’ve found that 80% of the time when someone asks me for advice what they really want is empathy. And the other 20% that do want advice are able to hear it better when I give them empathy first.

So I always try to offer empathy before I offer advice. It’s also why I say, “I have some advice arising. Are you open to hearing it?” before I spill out all the ideas I have to fix their problem.

Why it doesn’t work:
Advice doesn’t work because it pushes away someone’s suffering. Remember the details of a problem are rarely the issue. It’s the feelings those details create for the speaker.

The other reason advice doesn’t work is that people often get it without asking. When this happens the advice can be seen as a criticism as opposed to an attempt to help.

Finally it’s important to understand why we give advice. Mostly people give advice because just sitting with someone else’s suffering is hard and advice helps you feel like you’ve done what you can and move on. But the braver and more compassionate choice is to be willing to sit with this persons suffering by offering them your open and present heart.

2. Sympathy –
Sympathy and empathy, they both sound alike, so they must be the same. Well not quite. While empathy is about being present with someone’s suffering, sympathy is about trying to feel someone’s suffering with them.

Why it doesn’t work:
Usually sympathy takes the attention away from the person in pains and puts it back on you as the listener. Instead of creating space where the speaker can be heard sympathy removes the space and creates a need in you to be heard as well.

Of course sympathy can arise naturally when sharing in bad news, or if another person’s loss makes you feel bad for them, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you now feel like crap it’s going to help the other person feel better.

3. Collusion –
Collusion is when two people create a connection over a common dislike or enemy. It happens often with people who, for example, have bad bosses. Even though everyone is miserable they feel closer to their co-workers because you’re all in this together.

The easiest way to notice if you’re colluding is if you start to agree with and amplify the details the person is sharing with you. For example if they say, “My boyfriend forgot our anniversary,” and you say, “OH man what a jerk I can’t believe he did that, you deserve better.” As you can see you’ve taken the detail of the forgotten anniversary and added the judgment of him as a jerk and the assertion that she deserves better.

Why it doesn’t work:
While collusion does create a connection, the connection isn’t very deep. In addition it prevents the other person from getting to the feelings and needs that are causing them distress. Instead it keeps them at the level of the details.

So when I feel the desire to collude, I do my best to pause and say, “You know I’m not here to tell you that your boyfriend is or isn’t a jerk, I’m here to listen to you and be there for you.”

In addition to these 3 very common mistakes, there are a whole list of other things commonly mistaken for empathy including:

  1. Telling a story – Oh that same thing happened to me…
  2. Console – It’s ok, it’ll be alright
  3. Pushing away feelings – You don’t need to feel bad just cheer up
  4. Analyze – You just feel bad because of X,Y,Z
  5. Investigate – Why did you do that? Why did you feel like that?
  6. Diagnose – It sounds like you had a panic attack.

And of course their are more. But what’s important to remember is that while all of these will create some form of connection, that they are simply not as powerful as real empathy.

Ok so how do you practice empathy:

  1. Be present – don’t’ try to fix anything just be really present to what’s happening for the other person, both on the surface as well as beneath it. This is the only thing that is really required.
  2. Listen deeply – listen to what they say not for details but for the feelings and needs underneath.
  3. Reflect – get curious and guess at what they are feeling and needing and get confirmation.
  4. Allow for silence- sometimes just sitting and listening is enough. Resist the urge to fill silence if that’s what they need.
  5. Offer – Offer is the other side of requesting, if you think something might help offer by asking. Say would you like: some reassurance, to collaborate on a solution, so ideas about what to do next, more time to talk about this. Just make sure your offer is made gently and openly.

That’s it. If you just practice these things and are willing to follow your intuition about what to do next, you can create deep connections and help anyone not feel alone when they are having a rough time.

Ok now it’s your turn:

Challenge #30: Empathy

1. Practice:
Take everything you’ve learned over this phase and practice it on a friend or loved one. Especially if they start telling you something that went wrong. If you notice a tendency to offer something other than empathy just remember the mantra, empathy first!

2. Reflect:

  • Once you’ve had a chance to try this at least once, reflect on your experience.
  • What was it like to offer empathy instead of one of it’s near enemies?
  • Did you feel more connected?
  • What kinds of non empathy were you most tempted to offer?
  • Is this something you do often?
  • What if you only offered empathy for a week?
  • What if you offered empathy to yourself more often?

3. Share:

Finally share in one or all of the following ways

  • Blog – Write a post about the type of non empathy you most often resort to, or write about what it was like to practice all of the skills you’ve learned in phase 4.
  • Share- Using #30dayhappy or posting in our Facebook group share your #1 non empathy approach and why you think you resort to it so often.
  • Comment – Tell me why you think your advice is amazing! or how practicing empathy is so hard for you in the comments below.