Empathy is a little practiced emotion in today's communications. Many people I've talked to admit that they tend to forget to be empathetic when they should be. They also get confused about when they should be empathetic and when they should be sympathetic. In fact, they hardly know the difference between the two and aren't quite sure how to show either. So let's start there. Let's distinguish between the two. Empathy is the ability to be able to understand what other people are going through because you've experienced the same thing or something similar. Sympathy is feeling compassion for someone else when something unfortunate happens to them. Therefore, empathy is about, "Hey, I know what you're going through" and sympathy is "I may not fully know what you're going through, but I'm sorry it's happening to you." Our focus today is to know how and when to be empathetic. To avoid the awkwardness that can arise when an opportunity requires it and you're not sure what to do, keep these three things in mind:
1) You don't have to have all the right words to say. Sometimes people believe they have to sound like a Hallmark card during difficult times. Reality is, most of us aren't all that prolific. Rather than forcing comments that will likely fall flat, just keep it simple. Be sincere even if it means admitting out loud that you don't have the words. Something like: "I really wish I knew what to say right now, but I don't think any words would be adequate. But know that I hate this for you. I'm just going to sit here with you for awhile, and if you want to talk about it, I'm here to listen." Then be quiet. Sometimes just being there is enough. Empathy is shown as much as it is said.
2) Tell your story. Your experience in a similar situation could be a comfort to the person who is struggling through at the moment. Show them you are a survivor. Give them hope that they will make it through too. Saying something like, "I understand if you're afraid about your diagnosis. I was diagnosed with the same thing" or "I know it's hard to lose a parent. I lost my mother when I was 18" or "I know how it is to work with a demanding boss. Mine has been a pain in my rear for two years now." Being able to relate to what someone else is going through because you've walked that path before provides them a bit of relief.
3) As much as it helps, it is not necessary that you experience a particular hardship exactly to be empathetic. You can show or express your feelings about the situation without having lived it. But try to avoid statements like "I know how you feel" if you've never been in their predicament. People find that annoying. Still, you can show your support with a few standard responses because your experience was similar if not exactly the same. For example: "If I were in your shoes, I would feel the same way." Or, "I can understand your frustration. I would be frustrated too." Or simply to acknowledge their feelings: "You're hurt right now because you've been betrayed. It's okay. You should feel hurt. Most anyone would."
One caveat about the statement "I know how you feel" is that you can say it if you have experienced the same feelings they are. Therefore anyone can be empathetic because all of us have had the same emotional responses as other people in life. We may not display them at the right time or in the right way, but we've all felt the same emotions at some point. Our reaction may have been the result of a different situation, but the emotion is still the same. For example, you may have been embarrassed because you got caught gossiping about a person and they heard you. The person you are trying to comfort may be feeling embarrassed by a criticism thrown their way by the boss in a staff meeting. Even though the situations are different, the feeling is still the same. Therefore, you can empathize about being embarrassed.
Being empathetic builds emotional connections. Empathy brings comfort and increases confidence in the other person. Your affirmations are healing and your validations are supportive--two things they need most at the moment. Try them and build stronger relationships.