This post is Part 2 about Empathy. You can read Part 1 here.
Last week, I finally saw my neighbor walking by. She had just delivered her sleeping daughter a few weeks prior and I hadn't seen her since. What was I supposed to say? I had prepared for this moment and I'll admit, I was a little nervous.
I ran outside in my bare feet. The cold cement was freezing on my toes.
She turned around quickly.
I ran up to her and I threw my arms around her.
"I'm so sorry. I'm so terribly sorry. Are you okay? How are you doing? Are you okay? Like really okay? When exactly did this happen? Are your doctors concerned? How's your husband? I talked to him the other day for a minute... I just feel so bad... Oh Megan... I feel just sick."
She looked at me like she didn't even know where to begin. Tears began to flood her eyes. She tried to smile. Her voice was soft.
"We are okay. Just so shocked. And sad. We've been laying low."
We talked for a little while... she tried to answer my silly questions. No, she is not okay- she's probably not doing all that great, either. She's grieving. She's sad. She's most likely very confused. And there I was, stumbling around trying to express my love and care and concern for her... and I'm sure she gathered that my intentions were good... but... woah... I was all over the place.
Today I want to talk about knowing what to say to those enduring trials you might not understand completely. Since there is no one size fits all empathy vernacular, I thought it'd be better to talk about what NOT to say first.
Let's say someone says to you:
"I feel like my marriage is crumbling."
There are a few ways you could respond.
Response A: "Well, I'm sure everything is fine. You guys are a wonderful couple."
This response is just really bad. All this is telling the person in pain is "you have NOT been heard and I can't go there with you so I'd rather avoid it completely, pretending I didn't really hear what you said."
Response B: "At least you are married. I've never even made it that far with any of my relationships."
This response is also know as the "I'm bringing it all back to me" response. This approach lacks concern completely. There aren't many 'hard rules' when it comes to being empathetic but if there is one, it might be: "at least" is NEVER a good lead-in.
Listen how uncaring the "at least" phrase sounds in a few other common scenarios:
"I've been diagnosed with cancer." "Well, at least they caught it early." or "At least you have some time left to be with your family."
"My brother is an alcoholic and it has been so hard on our family." "Well, at least it's not hardcore drugs."
"I recently had a miscarriage." "Well, at least you know you can get pregnant." or " At least it happened sooner than later."
"My husband has a severe pornography addiction." "Well, at least he's not in love with another woman."
When you "at least" someone, you are essentially shutting them down and we don't want to shut people down when they need us most, right?
What's a better way to handle this?
Response C: "I'm really so very sorry. That must be a very difficult and lonely place. Is there anything I can do? What can I do to help?"
This response may sound generic... and maybe it is... but it demonstrates EMPATHY. By saying something like this you are withholding judgement. You are attempting to honestly reflect and understand how someone might be feeling. And even if this person isn't lonely or really struggling, you are giving them the opportunity to reach out to you. You are also telling them that you are trying to understand their world.
Don't let not knowing what to say or the fear of not getting it right be a barrier between you and your loved ones. Compassion and empathy don't need to be accompanied with perfectly rehearsed lines, rather they need to be expressed from the heart.
If you don't know what to say about your friends brother in a alcohol recovery home, you can keep in short and sweet by saying something like:
"Gosh, that must be really hard for everyone in your family. I can't imagine. How is your brother doing in the center?"
You can also just be totally honest and upfront and say:
"I do not understand what you are experiencing... but I am certainly trying... and I am so sorry to hear about all of this. Please let me know what I can do to help ease your pain. I am here."
Sometimes, the simpler the better. Just remember not to avoid the topic by skipping over the reality of the problem and also, don't "at least" anyone. If you keep those two things in mind, I think you'll have a better shot at being more genuine and empathetic with those around you.
I know for certain that I didn't do the greatest job with my dear neighbor, Megan, the other day... but I'm pretty sure she knows how much I do love her. Those conversations are hard... for everyone... but the sooner we get it out in the open and express our concern, the easier it will be the next time you see that person- as well as the easier it will be to help them as the begin to move forward.
**Information was gathered from the book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't) by Brene Brown, as well as some of my own personal thoughts, too.