Imagine this: your best friend has just gone through a break-up, and is sitting a foot away from you ugly crying. You want to provide some comfort, but you’re at a complete loss for words. Now what?
When you’re talking to someone that’s hurting, hearing about their painful experience and sitting with their suffering can be incredibly difficult.
Whether it’s your child, your spouse, a friend, or a client, and they're going through a break-up, grieving the death of a loved one, just lost a job, or stepped in dog shit wearing brand new shoes...showing up for someone in an authentic way takes a lot of emotional energy, personal strength, and practice.
Luckily, communicating and connecting well is a skill that can be cultivated.
You have at least one role in your life in which you take care of others, whether you’re a parent, a coach, a manager, a spouse, a friend...and inevitably, those that you are connected to will experience adversity. When you are called on for support, you can help them feel more connected and reassured, even if you feel your empathy tank is running low.
The first thing to keep in mind when supporting someone is:
It is not your responsibility to relieve this suffering, and it’s not within your power to relieve this suffering.
….even if they come to you asking for advice. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help; it simply means when someone shares a difficult experience or emotion with you, it does not immediately become your job to make them feel better, even if your compassion compels you to help.
If you are going to begin looking for a solution to their problem, whatever happened needs to be faced, rather than ignored, shamed, or covered up. It needs to be seen. And that recognition needs to happen first and foremost.
If someone is sharing their struggles with you, they are first asking for empathy: they are asking you to recognize their suffering, and to face it alongside them.
Here are some phrases that will help you to communicate empathy:
"I’ve been there." One of the most powerful ways that you can express empathy is to share that you have felt similarly. If it’s appropriate, you can share a story about when you have felt similarly, but your first job is to be a listener, and to find out more about how the person you’re connected to is feeling.
"That must hurt." Don’t gloss over painful feelings with phrases like, "At least you…" or "it could be worse…" Be honest in your recognition of what’s happening. If it’s hard, say, "That sounds really hard."
"Tell me more." If you want someone else to feel heard, listen, and let them guide the conversation. Rather than adding your own input, ask for more details from them.
”Would you like my feedback or advice?” If you are listening, you are helping. You are not obligated to solve the problem or offer advice. When in doubt, wait for the other person to ask for help, or ask them if they are open to help moving forward. Sometimes people will share their struggles simply because they want to feel heard, and connecting with someone else will help ease their emotional burden.
In the end, it’s up to the other person how they choose to move forward. Simply engaging in conversation, in which you listen without judging or shying away, will be supportive, help you both feel more connected, and is the first step to relieving their suffering.