I’m trying to learn to how to show more empathy. It’s not part of my background. I’m a big guy; I don’t look that empathetic and I grew up in a tough neighborhood where that just wasn’t part of the vocabulary.
But I’ve been struck by some of the things I’ve heard friends and co-workers say to each other, and to me. For instance, one woman was complaining about a bad cold and another woman said: “You poor thing!” And it worked! You could see the change in the complainer instantly. Now, the idea that I would ever say “You poor thing!” to anyone over the age of four is about as foreign as anything I’ve ever heard.
These are some of the recent problems I’ve heard about where I got stuck trying to show empathy:
My boss is impossible.
I don’t have enough time to do everything.
My child (husband, wife, mother, father…) is sick.
I can’t afford something I need.
I have insomnia.
I’m looking for some mid-range lines to use. Something more palatable than “You poor thing!” What would do you say in these situations?
I think men have a problem with this kind of thing because men are problem solvers. Women seem to have an easier time just offering comfort.
You could say something like “that’s too bad” or “I know how that feels” or “it must be hard”. I hate the word but just something to validate what they feel or are going through without a lot of dialogue.
Don’t beat yourself up. I doubt if these people are all that empathetic either, just better at b.s.
really look like you’re listening hard, eye contact, all that, sympathetic nods and “oh yeah, that must be hard”-type lines are what you need. What they need more than any specific line, is that they have a dedicated place to output their sorrow too.
Yup. In these situations my instinct is to fix the problem or offer suggestions on how to. It is obvious this is not what they want though, so I can’t help but think, “Why are you bitching about this to me then?”
And that is why I am not very empathetic, so I have to try to fake it.
Don’t think of showing empathy just yet, try to have empathy and improve the accuracy of it. You need to have a good idea of what someone is feeling, before you can respond to it. Sometimes just telling people what they feel can be considered empathy. I once had a conversation with someone telling me in a very matter of fact sort of way about some bad thing that had happened to her. I wasn’t fooled and said, “Wow, you are really angry!”, which was enough to have the same instant reaction you mentioned in your story.
In your example, the cold the girl was having was circumstantial. The main thing was she was miserable, and feeling sorry for herself. Another girl complaing about having a cold might be worried about her performance at work. In that case, showing empathy would have meant telling her something like, “I’m sure your boss will understand,” rather than the pity that did the job in the story.
Having a better insight you have in the way someone is feeling means it’s easier to find a appropriate response. I found my empathy improved after I made a habit out of trying to figure out people’s feelings in general, and asking questions to confirm. Before, I usually just went with my first impression, which is often wrong.
Another thing that helps, is to be very honest to yourself about your own feelings. It’s very easy to deceive yourself by downplaying your fears and guilts and instead emphasizing your positive feelings. But that will also make it more difficult to recognize fear and guilt in other people.
I’m kind of the same way. I hear “I’m sad” and I think “How can I make happy?”
I hear “My sister died in a tragic blimp accident” and I instantly switch to “We’ll get those bastard blimps!” (usually in the Tick voice in my head).
Case in point, a co-worker’s sister died recently. We circulated a card and we took up funds for miscellaneous stuff. I contributed twice the recommended amount and I signed my name to the card. People wrote a paragraph or so (and as a result, it was hard to find a place to stick my lengthy name) but it seemed like such contrived drivel. Would she even read it if I wrote something? Would I have? Would it make her feel better?
Come to think of it, that makes sense, here are my immediate reactions…
How specifically (and I’ll try to help)
Tell me about your day, and I’ll help you budget your time
What’s wrong, has he/she tried (some remedy) or talked to her doctor, maybe it’s related to …
blah blah blah, if you cut back on XXX that’ll give you this much extra blah blah blah
Go to Walgreens and find the cheapest thing with dyphenhydramine hCL in it (w/o tylenol in it)
At some point my wife will say “Ya know, I’m not looking for an answer, I just want you to listen”
If you really don’t care, then give the standard “That must suck” or “Too bad” or whatever. But if you really do care then think about how to you would feel if you were experiencing what the other person is experiencing. Most of the time people don’t really want advice, they just want to be validated and to know that someone else knows or cares. For example, I found out my son (now a year old, then 6 months old) has leukemia. I told people but didn’t really want advice. I just wanted others to know what was going on. I got the standard responses of “I’m so sorry” and “If there’s anything I can do to help…” I felt better knowing someone else cared too.
On the other hand, people tend to react very differently to situations, so you need to allow for the idea that the other person is feeling very different from how you would feel. It’s good to also look at it from the other side: look at someone’s reactions, and then try to figure out what feelings would prompt you to react in that way yourself.
I’ve always found that when someone is complaining about something totally unimportant, that all you need to do is blurt out some “wise” story and then walk away leaving them astounded at the revelation, or utterly confused.
Either way, you don’t have to hear it anymore.
“Well, once I was walking home from gradeschool when I encountered a homeless puppy. I halted, and watched the poor thing, trying to decide whether or not to take him home. I walked up to it, pet it and tried to pick it up only to be bitten by his tiny puppy teeth. So, I went home and made a hotpocket and watched some Saved By the Bell. You see, if you can own them, watch some T.V! walks away proudly”
Do you want to BE more empathetic/sympathetic, or do you want to SOUND more empathetic/sympathetic? If you want to BE more e/s, try imagining yourself in the position of the person who is talking to you. If you want to SOUND more e/s, try imagining yourself in the position of the person who is talking to you, then say something that would make you feel a little better in their position. Or just say, “Sorry to hear that.” and change the subject.
By the way, it’s okay to not fake empathy/sympathy if you truly don’t feel it. I have the opposite problem; I have worked on becoming less sympathetic because I was feeling too much for everybody, and I can’t care about everyone in the world.