When something awful happens to a colleague, friend, relative, or just a stranger in the street, it’s often difficult to find the right words to comfort them. Sometimes it feels like what we say is not good enough to express how we feel about the situation.
Showing empathy to people when they are going through problems is very important because it is the words we say to them that give them the courage and strength to endure and find solace.
More often than not, people end up saying the wrong things when trying to comfort other people and show empathy. Unfortunately, very few people realize it because these statements have been said to them when in similar situations.
We have been accustomed to accept these cliché statements as the right things to say to people when they are hurting—even though they were not of any use to us when we faced similar problems.
In this article, I will teach you how to show empathy even when you do not know what to do or say. But first, let’s start by understanding what empathy means and why it is important.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy means having the ability to appreciate another person’s feelings, seeing things from their perspective, and imagining yourself in the same situation. Basically, it is walking in someone else’s shoes and understanding how they feel. For you to show genuine empathy, you must know how to imagine yourself in the other person’s situation and sympathize with them.
Showing genuine empathy is not as easy as some people would like you to believe, especially since you have to get into the other person’s head and understand their emotions and feelings. Besides, people are accustomed to their own feelings and emotions, and therefore they are likely to respond differently to different situations.
So, empathy may not be necessarily the universal response to other people’s suffering. Empathy comes in different forms, including;
• Affective empathy—this is the ability to comprehend someone else’s emotions and react appropriately. This leads to a feeling of personal grief and concern for the other person’s well-being.
• Somatic empathy—it involves a physical reaction to someone’s distress. For instance, you might feel shy or blush when you see a person feeling embarrassed.
• Cognitive empathy—it is the ability to understand someone else’s mental state and thought process when responding to a particular situation. Psychologists refer to it as the Theory of Mind.
Please understand that although sympathy is related to empathy, there are some significant differences. Sympathy is more of a spontaneous connection to someone’s feelings in response to a stressful situation, while empathy involves a more active effort to understand the other person and the problems they are facing.
There are many benefits of being able to experience and show genuine empathy.
Benefits of Showing and Experiencing Empathy
Building Social Connections
By showing genuine concern for other people’s well-being, you can gain their trust and build a strong relationship with them. It also helps you to understand other people’s feelings and thoughts, allowing you to respond properly in different social situations. Studies have shown that social connections are good for nurturing physical and psychological happiness.
Being able to empathize with other people is important because it teaches you to control your own feelings and emotions. That way, you can react appropriately to stress without being overwhelmed.
Empathy teaches you to be concerned with other people’s problems. It also encourages other people to help you when you are going through a similar situation.
If you always struggle with what to tell other people when they face stressful situations, the following list will help you find the appropriate response to every situation.
Most Effective Ways to Show Empathy
By acknowledging someone’s pain and struggle, you make them feel supported. It is a simple way of showing them you are trying to understand how they feel. Normally, people who are going through difficult situations want someone who can genuinely listen to them and try to understand how they feel. They just want confirmation that the situation they are facing is difficult.
Here are some empathetic responses you can use to acknowledge someone’s pain:
• I’m so sorry you are going through this
• Wow, that really sucks
• I hate that this has happened
• That must be hard
• That sounds really challenging
#2. Share Your Feeling
It is not a sign of weakness or indifference to admit that you are finding it difficult to imagine how stressful it is to experience what the other person is going through. You should also admit that you don’t know what to say. But make sure that whatever you say doesn’t make you look indifferent.
By sharing your feelings with the other person, you can connect with theirs. For instance, you can say:
• Wow, I don’t know what to say
• I can’t imagine what you must be going through
• I wish I could make it better
• It makes me really sad to hear this
#3. Show Appreciation
Many people find it difficult to open up to other people about their problems. It’s even more difficult if they have been betrayed before. So, when someone opens up to you about their struggles, it is a sign of trust, and you should never betray it. Just respond with a sense of compassion and let them know that you appreciate them sharing their problems with you.
Here are some responses to help you show appreciation:
• I’m glad you told me this
• Thank you for sharing with me
• Thank you for trusting me with this. It means a lot.
• Thank you for opening up. I know it must be difficult.
#4. Show Some Interest
Some difficult situations leave people feeling isolated. So, if someone comes to you with their struggles, it means they are looking for a connection. Hence, you need to show interest in what they are telling you and try to understand their emotions. The easiest way to show interest in someone’s story is to talk less and listen more.
Also, ask questions that show empathy and interest in how they are feeling. For instance, you can ask:
• How are you feeling about everything?
• What has this been like for you?
• Is there anything else you want to share?
#5. Be Encouraging
While some people understand the need to encourage their friends and relatives when they face a difficult situation, they often do it the wrong way by attempting to “take care” of the problem. Others try to force the affected person to look at the bright side. Even though we have good intentions when doing this, the approach doesn’t help face people in pain.
Not that you shouldn’t encourage other people, but you simply need to be more mindful of their situation and your approach to it. For example, instead of assuring them that things will get better or telling them what you would do if you found yourself in a similar mess, remind them you love them and share what you like about them.
See the following examples:
• You are very brave/strong/capable
• You matter
• I’m proud of you
• I love you
• I’m with you all the way
#6. Be Supportive
In showing empathy, sometimes our actions matter more than what we say. For example, you can hug the person, send them flowers, write them a handwritten note, offer to mow their lawn, or do their laundry. These things make a person feel supported and cared for. And if you are looking for words to show that you care and want to support, here are some good examples:
• How can I help you?
• What do you need right now?
• I’m here for you
#7. Recognize Your Biases
Sometimes our views and thoughts about certain situations can be biased without even realizing it. Our standpoints are normally based on the various paradigms that define us. Unfortunately, most of our biases act as solid barriers that prevent us from showing empathy to other people.
So, it is important to be mindful of other people’s feelings when we make judgments and offer our views.
You need to understand that your point of view is not always right by default. Also, keep in mind the fact that your analysis of a problem you haven’t experienced personally will most likely be flawed. So, constantly remind yourself that you are not always right.
#8. Confirm What You’ve Heard
Sometimes it’s very easy to get the wrong message, especially when we are emotionally overwhelmed. This could be for lack of focus, objectivity, compassion, poor listening, or poor communication by the affected person. So, you need to confirm what you think or believe you have heard. You can safely do this by recapping the message with slightly different words.
This gives the other person a somewhat fresh perspective and helps to keep the conversation focused on the issue at hand.
What Not to Do When Someone Feels Hurting
Apart from knowing what to say, it is also equally important to know what not to say or do to someone who is hurting. Here are a few things you should avoid when you are trying to show empathy.
#1. Don’t Dodge
It’s normal to be caught off-guard when someone else opens up to you about a situation they are going through. When this happens, the worst thing you can do is to change the subject or end the conversation quickly.
No matter how uncomfortable the experience is, do not dodge the subject because it leaves the other person feeling like you left them dangling on a cliff. It is also very defeating and makes a person feel awfully alone.
#2. Don’t Minimize the Problem
Some people think they are helping you get through a stressful situation by trying to minimize the problem. This includes statements like, “but I thought you are going to be okay?”. Although this looks like an innocent statement, it has the potential to leave the other person more devastated and lonely.
#3. Don’t Advise
When someone opens up to you about what they are going through, they expect you to listen and be there for them in pain. Probably, they have already tried many solutions without success. Therefore, don’t rush to give them your quick and easy solutions to the problem unless they’ve asked you for advice. It may seem supportive, but often it is not helpful at all.
#4. Don’t Compare
No matter your situation, there is always someone else facing a much bigger problem. We all know that. So, when someone shares their struggles with you, don’t try to comfort them by comparing their problems with someone else’s. It feels like you are telling them to get over themselves.
For instance, when a person tells you they have cancer, the last thing they want to hear is how many other people have had the disease more than once. It often sounds like you are trivializing their pain.
#5. Don’t Overreact
When a person shares their struggles with you, they are looking for emotional support. Therefore, be strong both physically and emotionally to be able to comfort them no matter how uncomfortable the experience is. It’s okay to be sad, but don’t overreact because it can easily end up being about you rather than the affected person.
To Sum Up
I believe nobody is perfect as far as showing empathy is concerned. But I hope the recommendations in this article have taught you a few important things about empathy and how you can show it to other people. I also believe that by being empathetic to other people, we make the world a happier place.
The world today seems to only focus on flaws and instill fear and rage in people, but a simple act of compassion like hugging someone when they are going through a terrible situation makes all the difference.