I recently heard a new definition of ‘Empathy’: Empathy is when we listen to someone else’s story before we share our own. The old saying, We have two ears and one mouth, encourages us to listen more than we speak. In the desire to be empathetic when others are experiencing difficulties, we too often share our stories – similar to theirs in our minds – when we hear about someone’s struggles.
How many times have you started to tell a story about a troubling situation – it could be a death, a break-up, a conflict – something that you want to share, and the other person responds by telling you their story? They mean to be helpful, yet their interruption stops your process and co-opts your experience to focus on theirs.
We have all done it. We might even have uttered, more than once, the least helpful words you can say: “I know just how you feel!”
We don’t know what somewhat else feels. We know how we felt or think we would feel in similar situations, but we don’t know another person’s experience and feelings. What is worse, is that we often don’t know how to ask. We charge in and offer what we think might be helpful. We tell people what they are experiencing and what that means – to us, not necessarily to them. Maybe we are right. Maybe our ideas are spot on for easing whatever hurt or confusion someone else is having. More likely, we have guessed wrong. Our assumptions missed the mark. This may mean we have also missed the opportunity to connect deeply.
So what do you say when someone is hurting or confused? I’m sorry. I can listen, if you want to share. It sounds hard. Make space for them to share.
If it’s appropriate, asking open-ended questions can take you both to the next level. Questions like: What do you think? How is this for you? Tell me more? Is there anything I should know? What’s this like for you?
It isn’t always comfortable hearing what others are feeling. We might find ourselves out of our comfort zone when others are emotional; helpless to change it.
We learn most when we are on the edge of those comfort zones. Totally comfortable, it’s life as usual. Overwhelmed, we’re scrambling to maintain. On the edge, we readjust, pay attention, and discover our next steps.