When I was 12, my mom suffered a traumatic brain injury, something that greatly affected me then and still does today. Over the past 15 years, friends, family members, and even strangers have tried to empathize, but most attempts have appeared in the form of personal comparison. It usually goes a little something like this:
“Oh, that sounds just like this thing that happened to this person I know. This is how she handled it, and you should do that, too!”
Hearing this can sometimes be frustrating, to say the least. It can invalidate my struggle and the solution often sounds simpler than it actually is. Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor and empathy specialist, says, “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” Do we really want to reward vulnerability and courage with comparison?
So, how do we practice empathy without stealing the spotlight for ourselves? Brown offers four empathy attributes: to be able to see the world as others see it, to be nonjudgmental, to understand another person’s feelings, and to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings.
The below do’s and don’ts help translate these attributes into everyday life, which we can all use to better empathize with the people we love.
This is the example I used above, and it’s a big one. Kristin Rosenquist, a clinical social worker who has studied Brown’s work, says that comparison is natural, that people often compare emotional distress to their own experiences. But no matter how similar they may seem no two situations are exactly alike. Instead, she advises that we become more self-aware of our own baggage and differentiate that from the situation in front of us.
DO listen and focus
“When the people we love stop paying attention, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in.” Brown reminds us how important it is to listen when someone speaks. She stresses that we’re there to listen and sit in someone’s pain, with an emphasis on the word “sit.” Have you ever tried confiding in someone who’s daydreaming, texting a friend, or even just fidgeting? If you seem disengaged during the conversation, the person who’s confiding in you will disengage, too.
DO put yourself in their shoes
This one is different than comparing, but only slightly. Rather than sharing a personal experience that may seem similar, Rosenquist says it’s helpful to think about the issue from the other person’s perspective. If your friend’s loved one passes away, but you’ve never lost someone close to you, think about how a loss would make you feel. Even if you haven’t experienced exactly what they’re experiencing, this will help you better understand it.
DON’T just state the solution
Unfortunately, there isn’t always a clear-cut solution to every problem and even when there is it’s often more complicated than it seems to fix. If a family member gets laid off from her job, your first thought may be to encourage her to just find a new one. But this example – like so many others – is much easier said than done. Instead, you can offer advice, help your relative come up with a game plan, suggest resume updates, and brainstorm how she can network within her industry.
DO thank them for sharing
Arguably one of the easiest ways to show empathy is to say “thank you” or “I’m really glad you told me,” according to Rosenquist. It takes courage for anyone to share something that’s scary or upsetting, and if someone chooses you as a confidant, let her know you’re happy they did.
Empathy has one defining characteristic many people might be surprised to learn: It is a skill. It’s not innate, but we are all capable of building it. Sharing a difficult story and showing vulnerability is cathartic and healing on its own, so don’t feel pressure to react in the perfect way each and every time.