How many of us have been in the position of needing to talk to someone about a problem, only to find that they seemingly take over the conversation?
When we put our stories on the line, it can be very dispiriting to hear ‘I know exactly what you mean, X happened to me and I….’. And what has happened? The exchange is suddenly about them, and not about you and your problems at all.
We can be left feeling let down; ignored; drained (especially if we end up having to support the other person).
So let’s turn this around and think about how we can improve our interactions with others when they come to us for support. The key is to focus on empathy.
Researcher and writer, Brené Brown, says that ’empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection.’ In other words, showing empathy lets the other person know that they can be open and vulnerable with you, in whatever way is helpful to them. In contrast, sympathy is feeling bad for someone else because of something that has happened to them. This is less useful because it does not create any space into which a person can move for more support. It closes down the interaction, rather than promoting an opportunity for sharing and moving forward.
Empathy = feeling with someone
Sympathy = feeling for someone
Here are three ways in which we can show empathy:
- avoid saying ‘at least’. As Brené Brown explains in the short video below, we can fall into this trap because we want to try to make things better. But rarely are we able to achieve this with words, particularly ones which stray away from the core of the problem;
- don’t make assumptions about how the other person is feeling, what they might want to do, and/or what they might want from you. Avoid jumping in with solutions. Instead ask ‘how can I best help you right now’;
- be present and engaged. One of the most precious gifts we can give someone else is our time and our focus. Providing the space in which they can fully tell their story can be profoundly helpful and supportive because active listening can lead to the other person feeling valued and accepted. It is this type of connection which provides a basis for the person to move forward towards the identification of next steps for themselves.
Ok, I hold my hands up and declare I am a “I know what you mean” person. I would like to put that down to being an over-sharer and wanting to support the person who is talking by sharing my own experiences. My genuine reasons for doing it is to show sympathy. But my narratives are rarely short and inevitably the conversation turns to me and my life – an utterly unintentional move.
I love the Brené Brown video, it helps me to see that it’s ok for me to share my own experiences but to stop much sooner to let the other person continue.
Having alopecia has meant that I have been on the receiving end of ‘sympathy’ far more than when I had hair.
“At least you don’t need to shave”
“Look at my eyebrows, I have over plucked”
“You are so lucky, it takes me ages to do my hair”
“At least you are saving money on hair products”
These are to name a few – Of course, I have a sense of humour and I am able to take these comments in the spirit in which they are intended. But to someone having a bad time, it could be alienating.
Have your say: Why not give Liz’s tips a try and let us know how you get on? And we would also love to hear any additional suggestions you have for ways in which to show empathy. What has worked well for you in the past?