When people are struggling with their problems what they need, more than anything, is a whole lot of empathy and understanding.
But, it’s usually not what they get.
There are certain messages they need to hear that can make a huge difference in their ability to move forward. And there are some messages that will hurt them, make them defensive or reactive.
20 Non Empathic Responses to People’s Pain:
Many of the following responses to people’s pain may seem empathic, until you’re at the receiving end of them. Give this a read and notice what responses people give you that don’t feel good – and notice which one you tend to give other people. Many of these are borrowed from or inspired by the powerful book Non Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg.
Central here is the notion that we need to put empathy before education. All too often, people jump into giving advice and trying to resolve the issue well before they truly understand it and well before the other person truly feels understood.
1. Advising: “I think you should . . “ “How come you didn’t?”
2. Analyzing: “Well, I think it’s clear the reason this happened is . . .”
3. Arguing: “That isn’t right at all. That isn’t how it happened.” “Boy. I really disagree with you on that.”
4. Commiserating: “That’s terrible. She had no right to do that to you.”
5. Condemning: “I need to call you on your racist shit.”
6. Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault; you did the best you could.” “Everything’s going to be okay.”, “This too shall pass.”, “Everything happens for a reason.”, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”
7. Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.” “It’s not really that hard.”
8. Criticizing: “You know what your problem is?” “Can’t you do anything right?”
9. Diagnosing: “This is happening because you’re so passive-aggressive.”, “You know, you really have a limiting pattern of always doing _____.”, “You know what your problem is?”
10. Educating: “This could turn into a very positive experience for you if you just . . .” “Well, in my experience, it was very different.” “I have a very different relationship to that.”
11. Evaluating: “If you hadn’t been so careless.”
12. Explaining: “I would have called but . . .” “I didn’t want to do it this way, but . . .”
13. Fixing: “What will help you is to . . .”
14. Interpretations: “I think he did that because . . .”
15. Interrogating: “When did this begin? What are you feeling?”
16. Lecturing: “It’s like I always say. . .” “How many times do I have to tell you?”
17. One-Upping: “That’s nothing: wait’ll you hear what happened to me.”
18. Shutting Down: “Cheer up. Don’t worry. Don’t feel so bad.”
19. Story-telling: “That reminds me of a time . . .” “Oh! That reminds me of this
Tony Robbins seminar that I went to once. Tony said . . .”
20. Sympathizing: “Oh you poor thing.”
The Five Messages:
Message #1: That you ‘get it’ (or at least will try to). It’s terrible to have symptoms you don’t like. It’s much worse to feel like no one really understands or cares. The more they can see that you understand not just the underlying causes of their situation but the actually experience of what it’s like to be going through it . . . the more they will trust you. This isn’t just something you can ‘say’. It’s got to show up in everything you do. Your understanding of what it’s like to be them must be woven into the systems of your business and the ways you interact with them.
Once I was looking for a therapist to help me through some trauma I’d experienced. She emailed me and, in response, got an autoresponse email from my gmail account letting her know I was busy and offering a link to a mix of some of my favourite music online.
She wrote back, “I do not and will not open links from people I do not know!!!!”
When I got this email I was stunned. I was writing her about trauma. And, her response was to virtually yell at me.
I wrote her back, “this was an auto response email. i’m not sure the offer of good things offered with good intentions warranted this four exclamation marks response. especially to someone who just reached out to you for support for their trauma. I will likely be seeking counselling and support elsewhere now.”
She replied, “yes…great idea! and good luck!!!!”
I was left with the very clear sense that she had no idea what it was like to be me.
My colleague Dike Drummond of www.TheHappyMD.com often says these simple but important words to his clients, “I am so sorry this is happening to you.” And in saying that he conveys that he really ‘gets’ how intense and terrible it is for them.
One of my clients Lorraine Watson put it this way, “You’re right, it sucks right now and there’s no way around it.”
Message #2: That they’re not crazy. It’s bad enough to have symptoms you don’t like, but to then feel as though maybe you’re ‘making it all up’, that it’s all just ‘in your head’ and that maybe you’re crazy to be thinking what you’re thinking . . . well . . . it’s just the worst. If you can give people not only the message that you ‘get it’ but also the message, ‘hey, I don’t blame you for thinking that at all.’ It’s powerful thing for people to realize that their response is actually totally natural.
Message #3: That they’re not alone. This is connected to the second message with a twist. Knowing that your responses are natural helps you feel not crazy. Knowing that your responses are normal (that other people have them too) helps you feel no alone. In therapy, they often speak of ‘normalizing’ the problem. Helping people realize that millions of others experience the exact same thing. I remember, after suffering my first full blown panic attack, calling an old friend and having them recount the symptoms they’d experienced when they’d had theirs. And, listening to him share a virtually identical experience was such an incredible relief. It helped me feel less scared. It helped me feel more connected to him.
A blog reader Kyana Mayfield wrote a comment below that I thought was important to include here. “while I do agree wholeheartedly on letting clients know they’re not alone and gaining a sense of connection, I also think it would be helpful to be honest about the fact that everyone has their own personal experience and we can’t pretend to know EXACTLY what the other person is going through – because we cannot see the world directly with their eyes. And so their problems are just as unique as they are universal.”
As much as we might ‘get it’ and affirm that they aren’t alone, it’s important for their feeling of safety and trust in us that we acknowledge that there are ways we will never, ever truly ‘get’ their experience.
It’s a beautiful thing in life – none of us are alone in having completely unique experiences.
Message #4: That there is hope. When you’re in pain, it can be very easy to get scared and obsess about the worst case scenarios. But if you can help them understand that it’s possible to get what they’re craving (or at least to get closer) they will be so profoundly grateful. Often times, when people feel hopeless about their situation it’s not because their situation is actually hopeless, it’s just their limited perspective. And if you can draw them the map showing them how you can help them get from where they are to where they want to be, they will be so grateful and very likely to work with you. This one is vital. After all, if they don’t believe that getting what they want is possible – why would they invest any money or energy in making it happen? They won’t. Of course, the caveat here is to be very honest about the possibilities and limitations that you see in their situation. Because if you give them hope and then take it away, they will hate you and be less likely to ever trust anyone offering to help them again. Dike Drummond remind his potential clients, “Things can be different than they are now very soon … even if you can’t see how to get there right now.” This is vital for people to hear.
Message #5: That there’s a bigger context. Any way in which you can show them that what’s happening to them is actually perfect and a doorway into something much bigger and more powerful, the better. I recently wrote a post about this here. If people can come to see that their is meaning in their suffering and that their symptoms, however uncomfortable, might just be the best thing to ever happen to them . . . you will be in awe as to the kind of loyalty and gratitude you receive from people. If you can help people see that their situation didn’t happen to them but for them and that it’s a part of their hero’s journey you’ll watch many people sit up straight, take a deep breath and be willing to face something that would have daunted them before.
Can you think of any other messages people need to hear when they’re struggling?
Below you can see this blog post summed up into a single image via the genius work of the good people at www.sketchingmaniacs.nl in Amsterdam.