When I try to give empathy to people I love, I don’t really know how to. I think I end up giving sympathy. Or I ask questions and give suggestions, and this can lead to conflict. How do I give empathy to my partner and my children without ending up in an argument or feeling disconnected and helpless? I need some tips.
Great question! Empathy is a new buzzword and for good reason. It is about being truly present. It involves mindfulness. I define empathy as a non-judgemental interest in the other person’s feelings and needs. This kind of focus requires you to be open and relaxed. This is tricky because other people’s strong emotions can trigger your own, and you might easily fall into the kind of responses you have described, which are not-exactly-empathy.
I also call these Empathy Busters. When the other person’s strong emotions trigger our own anxieties, past grievances or defences, being empathic can be hard. Then we tend to lose our non-judgemental awareness of the other and slip into protection mode (of ourselves or them). We get caught up in our own thoughts and feelings, and offer one of these kind of responses instead. Here are some common Empathy Busters:
Educating: “You could turn this into a positive experience if you __________”
One-Upping: “That’s nothing! Wait till you hear what happened to me”.
Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault. You did the best you could” .
Sympathising: “Oh you poor thing.”
Storytelling: “That reminds me of something I heard on the news”
Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel bad. Let’s go for ice-cream”
Data gathering: “When did this begin?”
Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”
Reassuring: “It will all be OK.”
Denial of Feelings: “Don’t worry. It’s silly to worry.”
Minimising: “This isn’t so important.”
Diagnosing: “Your problem is you’re too impulsive”
Analysing: “I think it’s to do with your personality type”
Have you done any of these? Of course you have! We all do them. As you may know, some of these are more damaging or disconnecting than others. And, of course, sometimes your loved one may actually want your advice, your stories, your reassurance, or sympathy. It’s just that…well…these are not exactly empathy.
When your loved one is distressed, sad or upset, they probably want (in the first instance) an empathic response from you; your simple presence and genuine interest in how they are going, right there and then. So how can you side-step Empathy Busters? You need to develop some Empathy Boosters.
Empathy supports the other person to turn towards their own internal experience. It does not seek to re-direct their attention back to you, or to other topics. It always begins with your intention to pay attention to them and to calm your own busy mind.
- Notice when your mind wants to offer suggestions or stories. Silently thank your mind for trying to be helpful, then park those thoughts. Bring your attention back to the person. Listen longer. Slow down and be there.
- Ask them questions such as: “Are you feeling ______?” and “Were you wanting _______”
- Paraphrase: “That must have been difficult” or “Sounds like you were needing __________”, etc.
- Get better at connecting with their underlying feelings and needs by expanding your lexicon or vocabulary of feelings words and needs words. Helping people put their reactions – in other words, their feelings and needs – into words demonstrates true empathy.
If you notice yourself offering advice, stories, strategies or sympathy, notice the results. Did it progress the conversation or enhance the connection you felt, or not? See if your responses make the two of you feel more or less connected. Learn by experimenting.
I notice with my own children and partner that it is usually out of fear or anxiety that I want to step in and fix, educate, advise or disagree with them. When I can soothe this fear in myself, maybe take some nice deep breaths, I can then relax into the emotional discomfort and stay more present with my child or husband.
I hope this gives you a start. Some of our therapists at NBP have training in Nonviolent Communication if you’d like to come and see us to develop these skills. If you’d like to try an exercise to strengthen connection with a loved one, try this one from Marshall Rosenberg.