Five Simple Messages That Can Have Potential Clients Melt and Fall In Love With You

hugWhen 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.”

Instead of those responses, consider consistently sensing the following five messages to your clients. You might say them overtly, convey them on your website or just through your presence. But, if you consistently give people these five messages, you will notice that people melt around you. They relax. They tell you more about their situation. They’re willing to be very candid and honest with you. And they’re so grateful to have someone who really ‘gets it’. 


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 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 in Amsterdam.


About Tad

  • Great post Tad,

    I saw the title of this post and read with interest what your five are so we can compare notes.

    When I am working with my burned out physician clients, the main messages I always work to convey are
    – I am so sorry this is happening to you
    – You are not crazy
    – You are not alone (any more)
    – Things can be different than they are now very soon … even if you can’t see how to get there right now
    – So what is it that you really, really want
    – Once you are clear on that … I can show you how to identify the baby steps that will get you there

    We are so very close here and I love the way our Venn Diagrams overlap.

    Happy New Year,

    Dike Drummond MD

  • I just wove some of those pieces in with attribution to you :-) amazing the overlap!

  • valsilver

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I can see where some of my communication errors lie, and how I can connect better with people instead of shutting them down.

  • thanks so much. i slip into those twenty responses all the time. but i’m learning to be better :-)

  • Dana Da Ponte

    Tad, love the reminder and I think it’s a great idea to take this advice into ALL our relationships…not just our working relationships…even our relationships with our children. They need this same compassionate approach. How many times have I been guilty of the 20 non empathic responses to my son’s pain…especially the ‘interrogating’ one? Too many, my friend.

  • i couldn’t agree more with the ‘apply to all relationships’ things. totally. it’s that not it ENDS with empathy but, as the saying goes, ’empathy BEFORE education’. Once they feel empathy from us they usually WANT our guidance.

  • Thanks Tad – I love this. I think a key part of No1 is really letting the person be where they are – letting them spill it all out and to just listen without doing, fixing or offering anything – which is in effect saying to them – Yes, I hear you, I see you, I get it. The power of simply being heard and witnessed in itself is a huge step forward for most people. As they let it all tumble out, often they start finding solutions themselves. So setting up that powerful listening space is key before introducing anything else.

    For me also there is a key step of connecting the person to their own internal sat nav – the part of them that actually has knowing and insight about the situation. Helping people get connected to that helps them feel that they have the strength to transform it – they start having eureka moments and shifts of perspective. This also communicates to them that I am not trying to sell them my way of doing things. Helping people get clear about what they want, as Dike says, is one way to start the process of getting creative and connecting to what’s possible.

    Brilliant post lots of food for thought.
    Wishing you a very happy New Year, with gratitude for all that you share with us Tad.
    Katie Rose

  • JP Richards

    I like it. Good reminder to get our educating and relating with… and just “get it” and let them know they’re not alone.

  • so simple. but missed by so many.

  • so beautifully said. i love the idea of helping them connect to their own wisdom vs. selling them on your point of view.

  • Jean-Gardner

    Thanks, Tad! This issue has come up for me repeatedly in many different guises as a professional counselor recently. You’ve given me a great start and clarity to a whole new approach!

  • so glad!

  • Kaytlyn OConnor

    Thanks for the post Tad! I’m wondering what folks think about using the word “sorry” with empathy. In my NVC practice, people have often said they don’t like that word, I think because it creates a passivity instead of connecting people more concretely to what they are feeling. Some times though, I have a hard time thinking of something else to say:) On one level I’m like, don’t over think it, say whatever feels natural, but on the other, I keep coming back to wanting to avoid “sorry” . Anyone have any thoughts on this?

  • Christina Öster

    Instead of “I’m sorry” you could say “I hear you”.
    I have cancer so I know what it feels like when everyone is sorry…

  • Thanks for a good article, Tad.

    Let’s just say it’s a GOOD thing that this therapist was so unempathic in the first encounter–because you had not yet invested very much emotional energy with her. At the beginning it was just rude, and correctly steered you away. After three months of therapy with her, it would have been a betrayal.

  • i couldn’t agree more.

  • Karen Wan

    Hi Tad,
    In the past few years, my biggest work has been my kids. When my kids were young, I’d use the second approach more of the time, but sometimes life wears you down . . . with two teenage boys, I’ve definitely heard myself saying a bunch of the non-empathetic statements too often. I’m going to print out this post to see if there might be a better way of relating with my sons going forward.
    Also thanks for your post on seeing the bigger context of our work. My ex-husband had a quadruple bypass back in August, which shook up my world even though it wasn’t my own death that I was contemplating! :) I’ve been thinking about the bigger context of my life and work since then. I’d say my bigger context is helping develop a vision of sustainable abundance and peace for our world, and then doing something practical with that vision. I haven’t done much with this context for quite a while. Several years ago I ran a green business by-product synergy network for the City of Chicago, which was great work and exhausting. I want to create a way to be more involved with sustainability again without losing myself in the process. It’s very easy to be ego-driven doing sustainability or save the world type of work, and I want to avoid doing that this time.
    Thanks for all your thoughtful posts, not just these couple. You’re one of my favorite bloggers because you’re so authentic, helpful and funny too. I liked your post last year about being broke — that was a great one!
    Thank you for your joyful and peaceful work in the world, and have a happy and healthy new year in 2014!
    Karen Wan

  • Thanks, Tad, for including both the dos and don’ts in this article. Very helpful and nice to have at the beginning of a new year.

  • kyanamayfield

    Wonderful post Tad,

    I can see how I tend to advise, educate, and interpret when I communicate with my clients versus actually taking the time to really empathize with them. That’s something I need to change, and I will definitely have to make an effort to incorporate it more often into my services.

    I’d also like to add a little somethin’ to this list if you don’t mind :-). Particularly for message 3: because 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.

    I guess the universal truth is that we ARE all unique – and that is what makes us the same, in a sense.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this!

  • Debbie

    Thanks Tad for more of your great work. So appreciated. One of my worst flaws is being unable to receive when I am in deep pain. I don’t want to be hugged, or touched, or anything. I can get downright ugly about it like the animal lashing out in pain. I have learned to set boundaries out loud, and tell people how to treat me, e.g., what NOT to do, lest I hurt them as they try to help. The worst is when my eyes are swollen and red, I may be standing, but you can tell I am curled up in a ball, there’s no question about how I’m feeling, and people say, “Are you OK?” REALLY? Am I OK? Isn’t it obvious? So instead of “Are you OK”, I ask others in this position, “What can I do to help?” It instantly clarifies that I see they are in pain.

    The other thing I absolutely loathe, which I’m sure are covered somewhere in your list of 20 are what I call platitudes. Don’t tell me “This too shall pass.” Or “Everything happens for a reason.” Or “Everything will be OK”. Or the worst – “God will never give you more than you can handle.” These types of remarks just send me off the deep end. They are judgmental, telling people they shouldn’t be feeling what they are feeling. From doing a lot of work around grief, I know why people say these things. Ever notice at the funeral that it is the family who is comforting those in attendance and not vice versa? We say these things in general because we are very uncomfortable with people’s emotions, so we go right to our intellect. Very, very definitely not helpful.

    Rereading this it sounds like a rant. Not meant to be. Guess you struck a chord with me about how, or more importantly how NOT to talk to people, clients or not. So thank you so much for the post!!!

  • thank you so much karen. happy new years to you too <3

  • glad it was so helpful to you too

  • i love that. i’m going to add that as a caveat.

  • Tai Goodwin

    I hate that one too Debbie “God will never give you more than you can handle.” I find it odd that God would give me more pain – just because I can handle it – why didn’t he just make me less able to handle it then. I think lots of people don’t know what to say because they are sympathetic, but not really empathetic. This is a great lesson in thinking about how we connect with clients.

  • Tai Goodwin

    I often find myself saying to clients – I’ve been in a similar place…and then I share how my story connects with where they are. I am a highly sensitive person, so often times I really do get a sense of their struggle and can tap into what I felt when I was in that place. Empathizing often means that I don’t have the answers and I’ve learned to let silence be okay when I sense my clients need it or if I know we share a similar spiritual path, I will ask if I can pray to clear the space and invite peace and strength into the work we are about to do.

  • beautifully said.

  • kyanamayfield

    Thanks Tad :-) you’re awesome.

  • Annie Scott

    I also notice that the word sorry doesn’t sit peacefully with me…one concern is that it can fall into sympathy which is one of the non-empathic responses. Another is that if I say that, I could slip into joining them in their story that there is something wrong. More helpfully perhaps would be to fully acknowledge their experience and be with them in that moment trusting that this will cultivate a natural shift and opening of possibilities…For some, I can imagine that saying sorry is a way of expressing their own sadness with the situation which is an honest expression rather than an empathic one and which may or may not serve connection…hope this is helpful…

  • Annie Scott

    I really resonate with this Debbie, in fact I finally found a clear request and asked not to be hugged or touched by one person for 48 hours and then check if it would be helpful…this is giving me a welcome break and space to recover some level of resources in my own way…

  • Annie Scott

    a simplified version of the list of the non-empathic responses I like to use to support me in remembering is thinking about what jars in the way of listening JAR standing for Judgements, avoiding and rescue…

  • lisamanyon

    Tad — this is a fantastic post ? Holding the space for BIG healing and empathy. Write on!~

  • leon levin

    I also agree with this and add: if I’m following the energy between us then i don’t want to take it back to me by expressing my feelings and needs; I want to keep it with the person who is in pain. I also don’t want to bring the other into their heads, the intellectual, but rather keep them with their feelings. Sometimes just being silent, being their with them, perhaps a nod or vocal sound indicating “I’m here; I’m listening” is enough. We also need to feel comfortable with strong emotions…often we want to jump in to comfort, shutting down the expression of pain, because we are uncomfortable with it…it seems to trigger those same feelings within us.

  • Thanks Lisa!

  • JAR. I love it.

  • Shelley Harrison

    Hallo a Tad, Ciamar a tha sibh? Oh yes…first day in Gaelic language and culture at Ottawa U yesterday!
    Good article. Prompts me to get NVC after a conversation with a good friend in Manchester this morning about buying homes communally…and the necessary interpersonal work that would require to live together…and the necessity for skills like NVC!

    Also, as a healer/therapist has me looking more closely at how I communicate with my clients. This empathizing is a multi times daily act for me as clients and yoga students bring their challenges to me.

    Thanks…I will be more aware and apply this.
    Hope your travels are going well.

    Dove Heart Healing

  • mary choo

    Thank you Tad . It has made me feel a bit uncomfortable and aware of the way i invalidate people in my life (something my husband has been pointing out to me for years) but hearing it from someone outside gets my attention . . So now i need to look at and recognize that its true i do invalidate his feelings . (need a bit of time to struggle with this ). The bit i really did like was number 4 and the links you give.. Reading your blog and following the links is a bit like being on a Magical Mystery Tour . Its great and makes me acknowledge what is really going on in my life.Helps me come out of denial and feel more connected and Real. Its great. Thanks for your help .

  • <3

  • Michael Roeten

    Hi Tad,
    When I read this post, I checked out Nonviolent Communication from Marshall Rosenberg. It met a real need to understand what drives me. I’m grateful that you mentioned it and wrote a post about it. It wasn’t the first time I had an encounter with the ‘giraffe’ and the ‘jackal’, but this time I really checked it out.
    Cheers, Michael

  • so glad you checked it out! yeah. that book was so profound for me when i read it too.

  • Tad, I just realized that my home page rewrite followed this flow… thanks again for the gentle seepings into my unconscious mind that are really, really helping me to communicate better.

  • ahhh! it’s so great to have things confirmed :-)