Looking at this image- a lone man, peering at the devastation caused by a natural disaster, do we empathize, sympathize or are we apathetic? Hopefully, our ability to connect with others brings an empathic regard. Certainly this man has a story to tell and someone should listen.
Some years ago, after my initial separation from my now ex-husband, there was a deep-seated need to talk about my relationship to someone. I tried to talk with someone who was acquainted with my spouse and myself while we were together, but that fell flat. What no one knew about my relationship was the awful abuses I had endured, and the traumatic stresses I had experienced on a daily basis. I felt so alone during the marriage, and though free from mental and physical harm, I still felt alone after our separation. Those who claimed to be my real friend, proved otherwise. It was apparent that they were not interested in a true friendship at all. As difficult as it is to discuss personal issues with others, it seemed that nobody wanted to hear about the ‘bad’ stuff either.
The initial attempts to purge myself of the inner turmoil and shed light on the relationship from which I had escaped were rudely and abruptly halted. Why? When someone speaks to you, especially when feelings are expressed or implied, the speaker has a need to be heard. As a matter of fact, when we speak, we always want and often expect to be heard. We want to believe that personal disclosures are being received, whether or not there are associated underlying emotions within the message itself. You want to feel that the receiver is listening.
At the time, it wasn’t sympathy that I sought, but rather empathy, demonstrated by active listening. It is both insulting and discouraging, to the person speaking, to shift the conversation or change the subject. It is unnecessary to offer solutions, or give advice. Sometimes, the presence of an actively listening ear will suffice. Most important and quite therapeutic, is to feel that someone is sincerely interested in the thoughts, experiences, and feelings we choose to share.
Suffice it to say that everyone to whom I spoke, were not considered friends. It was sad, yet deeply enlightening to have gone through those failed attempts at forming authentic and meaningful relationships with persons from my past, who only knew me ‘when’, but not before. With time, became more clear and resolved nonetheless. Personal growth and recovery can only be temporarily stifled, interrupted, or derailed. It was totally up to me to find my peace, focusing on the ‘here and now’, living authentically today and planning for a better tomorrow.
It is an empathic regard for and between individuals, that encourages healthy relationship-building. It promotes meaningful connections. People don’t always want sympathy, for every tale of misfortune is not always a call for sympathy. Surely we have each heard this next statement once or twice:” I don’t want your sympathy. So, don’t feel sorry for me.”
What people need most is to know that someone is interested. It is empathic regard that we communicate via the ‘art of listening’. We aren’t required to understand or relate to someone else’s experiences. We are, however, minimally required to try to gain an understanding. Focus on the messenger, not ourselves or our assumptions.
Sympathy: expressions of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
Sympathy is most useful when a tragedy occurs, but on a daily basis it is empathy that builds meaningful relationships. We cannot express empathy for someone if we do not listen and really hear the message. When others share difficult situations with us, we tend to want to offer advice, reassure or give our personal ‘take’ on feelings expressed.
Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.
Empathy demands that we quiet our thoughts and listen actively. It is the art of listening. With our presence, we make the other person the center of attention. All preconceived notions and judgments are to be put aside. There are some responses, however, that serve as “empathy blockers”. [See below.]
One-upping, advising, fixing, educating, analyzing, consoling or discounting are examples of empathy blockers. Avoid them! They create distance, take away from the person speaking and can often frustrate or irritate.
Many times, we tell people what WE think they are feeling, hoping that we can connect with them. Imagine this: While traveling in your friend’s car to an event that is very important to you. Your friend gets stopped for an expired registration, thus making you late for this event. You arrive and see others who expected you earlier and they are disappointed. You recount this story to a friend, who then says,”You must have been really aggravated .” Were you aggravated? Maybe you had a different feeling, like-frustrated, embarrassed, or even disappointed.
How can anyone know with certainty what another person is feeling? We can’t, but a good way to find out is to ask,”What are you feeling?” Or “What were you feeling?” These may sound easy, but it takes practice to respond and listen empathically. Another way to find out what a person is feeling is through empathy guessing. Instead of telling someone what you think they are feeling, you can ask:
“I am guessing you may be feeling….”
“I imagine you may be feeling….”
“Is it that you were feeling…?”
Empathic responses are expressed by the listener’s verbal and non-verbal feedback [body language]. Responding with empathy will sound something likethe following statements:
- “I hear you.”Said sincerely, it satisfies the need to be heard. Or
- “Wow!” or “Oh my!”. Softly spoken, gives the speaker the indication that you are present. Or…
- “Tell me more.” This says that you are really interested.
- “I don’t know what to say right now, but am grateful that you shared with me.” This may be all you have to say.
Another element of empathy is to listen without the urge to immediately respond. It requires us to be present in the moment, and has the potential to counteract our conditioned behavior. Empathic responses are a ‘next level’ listening skill that promotes relationship-building and helps to develop meaningful connections with others. A basic human desire is to be received-to be heard and seen without judgment. We are most wise and courteous when we show that we are interested in what others share with us. In so doing, 3 little words like, “I hear you.” are simple, yet powerfully significant as an empathic response. People want to know that they are being ‘heard’-the 1st step to connecting.
If you want to be a good friend, be a good listener.