What to do when someone comes to you with a problem? Empathy might be a good choice!

If you’re like me, one of your first impulses might be to help them fix the problem by giving advice or sympathy. I’ve found, however, in the vast majority of cases the best response is to resist that immediate urge and respond with empathy.

Everyone has challenges from time to time and it’s quite natural to reach out to those closest to us for help. Who hasn’t known a family member, friend or colleague start talking about a difficult situation they face? Sometimes they complain or vent and at other times make a clear request for help.

‘My husband’s wants a divorce!’ / ‘I hate my job and my boss is incompetent!’ / ‘I’ve lost hope and I can’t get it back!’ / ‘My kids won’t do what I tell them!’ / ‘I can’t decide what to do!’

Big challenges and small and clearly each situation is different and demands a different response.  The best piece of advice I got over the last few years was:

Don’t just do something!

Sit there!

The gift of empathy

‘Sitting there’ doesn’t mean shutting down, ignoring or turning your back on the problem but means responding with empathy.

This requires presence, concentration and the capacity to be with someone without judging. It requires listening to more than just the words being expressed but to the meaning of them – not to me, but to the person you’re with.

Empathy, by my definition, is when I’m with your reaction to your problem. Sympathy, which I’ll mention later, is when I’m with my reaction to your problem.

Why is empathy so powerful?

On an intellectual level I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve experienced its power time and time again. When something troubles me, and I receive the gift of full, non judgemental attention of another human being I have space and safety to look inside myself. When I allow myself to be held by that attention I can connect much deeper to what’s going on inside and find my way out of the darkness. My experience is validated through the acceptance of it by someone else and once it’s validated I no longer think there’s something wrong with me and I can start to free the baggage that’s getting in the way of a solution.

For example, a couple of weeks ago at an NVC festival I was  struggling with how best to be present for my middle daughter. I was feeling helpless, sad and overwhelmed seeing how much she was struggling with many things. I started talking to a couple of male friends who sat and listened with their full attention. From time to time they helped me name feelings or needs I was trying to grasp, and nothing else. No advice. No sympathy. Just their full, empathic attention.

In that space  I found the core of what I was looking for, things started to fall into place and I produced my own ideas about what to do next. That space was created by trusting solutions would come, by being with my confusion rather than trying to make me feel better and by sitting and listening.

And I’ve experienced this so many times – both receiving and giving empathy – that I no longer need a rational explanation. I trust it’s power.

Breaking Habits

Empathy comes quite naturally to some people.

If you’re anything like me, you will have developed some problem-fixing habits that interfere with being with someone empathically. I noticed a number of automatic responses, depending on the situation, and they were all about trying to fix the problem quickly.

1   ‘If I were you …’

It’s obvious I know but I tend to forget that I’m not you. Often I give advice based on what I would do if I faced something similar. But you have the problem, you have to take the action and you will have to live with the consequences. You. Not me. I don’t know what’s best for you.

Empathy keeps my attention on you not on me.

2   ‘What you should do is …’

This is the habit of jumping to an answer before I understand your situation fully. Every situation has a rational side to it – who did what to whom and a whole set of possibilities or probabilities. If I’m patient and mindful, I’ll probably ask some intelligent questions to help me get a better picture.

There’s another aspect to each situation and that’s the emotional side and spiritual side – how you experience this situation and what it means to you. Many of us avoid going into this side.

But you can never fully face a problem until the whole picture is taken into account. By jumping into the rational solution too quickly I don’t honour your experience and what it means.

Empathy gives me the tool to do this.

3   ‘Don’t worry, be happy …’

This is a form of general and superficial advice. Another version  is to remind you ‘this too will pass’.

This is certainly true, but we are having this conversation here and now, not in the future. You know it will pass and being reminded of it might be comforting but more likely gives the message that your current pain is not important to me. With this advice I’m not honouring your experience but trying to minimise your pain. Your pain is real and it’s part of your current reality.

Empathy stays with your current experience and the quality of that presence allows the pain to disappear faster.

4   ‘Poor you …’

This is a form of sympathy, not empathy, where I’m agreeing you are in a bad position. While my intention might be to support you by validating your reaction, it risks keeping the pain alive. I’m treating you as a victim and it probably comes from my stuff – my own feelings when I hear your story.

Empathy keeps me to one side so I can be with your feelings without any judgement.

5   ‘I know just how you feel …’

Even if I’ve faced something similar, it was not the same and my reactions were not the same for the simple reason that I’m not you. I don’t know how you feel! My intention may be to comfort you by telling you you’re not the first one to have this problem. Again this minimises your experience, but more critically I’m using your problem as an opportunity to talk about myself. I’ve neatly turned the attention away from you.

Empathy keeps my focus on you and you alone.

Finally …

I’m not saying don’t give advice or sympathy,  just be very, very cautious when doing so.

After all, if someone does take your advice and it all goes horribly wrong, who are they going to blame? And when that happens then you might need some empathy yourself!