I sit here on Monday reflecting on my interactions today. So many people going through stuff, tough stuff. It takes courage for each to admit and I feel privileged that they have shared stories of their respective suffering with me. It also gets me thinking about how few people actually know how to show empathy to others.
To show empathy is to connect with the other person’s pain and to try to understand how he or she might be feeling. When a friend or loved one shares something difficult with you, they are mostly looking for someone to listen. If you struggle to find the right words to say then read on…
We often reach for the common responses not knowing that we are rarely doing much to help the other person feel better. Instead, we often minimise the other person’s pain and do little to connect with how he or she is feeling. So best to avoid these:
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “This too shall pass.”
- “Just look on the bright side…”
- “God has a plan.”
- “I know how you feel.”
- “He’s in a better place now.”
- “This could be a blessing in disguise.”
- “Something better is around the corner.”
Here are some better alternatives:
1. Acknowledge their pain
People in pain just want to be heard. They want validation that what they are going through is difficult. When you connect with someone’s pain or struggle it helps them feel supported.
- “I’m sorry you are going through this.”
- “Wow, that really sucks.”
- “I hate that this happened.”
- “That must be hard.”
- “That sounds really challenging.”
- “I can see how that would be difficult.”
2. Share how you feel
It’s okay to admit you don’t know what to say or that you’re having a hard time imagining what it would be like to experience what the other person is going through. However it is important not to diminish the other person’s experience or make it all about you. Focus on sharing your feelings to help you better connect with theirs.
- “Wow. I don’t know what to say.”
- “I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”
- “I wish I could make it better.”
- “My heart hurts for you.”
- “It makes me really sad to hear this happened.”
3. Show gratitude that the person opened up
Many people struggle with vulnerability because they have been burned before. They don’t want to share their struggles for fear that they won’t receive an empathetic response. When someone chooses to open up to you, it shows they really trust you. It’s your job to honour that and respond with care.
- “Thank you for sharing with me.”
- “I’m glad you told me.”
- “Thank you for trusting me with this. That really means a lot.”
- “This must be hard to talk about. Thanks for opening up to me.”
4. Take an interest
Going through difficulties can be terribly isolating and lonely. People who share their struggles are longing for connection. They want someone to take interest in their story and understand how they are feeling. The best way to connect with someone is not by talking, but by listening. Show you care by asking questions and showing a genuine interest in what they have to say.
- “How are you feeling about everything?”
- “What has this been like for you?”
- “I want to make sure I understand…”
- “What I’m hearing is that you are feeling ____. Is that right?”
- “Is there anything else you want to share?”
5. Be encouraging
Most people want to be encouraging when a friend or loved one is going through a tough time. The problem is that we often show this by trying to “fix” the problem or forcing the person to look on the bright side. Our intentions are good, however this approach is rarely helpful to the person in pain. Be encouraging. You simply have to be mindful of how you approach it.
Instead of saying, “it will get better” or “here’s what I would do,” share what you admire about them. Help them to see what you do .
- “You are brave / strong / talented.”
- “You matter.”
- “I’m in your corner.”
- “I love you.”
- “I’m proud of you.”
6. Be supportive
When it comes to empathy, actions often speak louder than words. You can show you care by giving a hug, sending flowers, writing a handwritten note for example. Doing these things helps the other person feel loved and supported. If you find yourself looking for something to say to articulate that you care, here are some suggestions:
- “I’m here for you.”
- “How can I help you?
- “What do you need right now?”
- “I’m happy to listen any time.”
- “I would like to do _____ for you.”
The reality is that there is no script for empathy. It’s less about what you say and more about showing up and listening well.