We’ve all been there-we ask a routine question and someone refuses to play the social game.
We say, “How are you?” and they answer honestly instead of with the obligatory, “I’m fine. You?”
Suddenly the encounter has taken an unexpected turn.
“Oh, no! I don’t know what to say,” you think.
It can end badly-both of you walking away uncomfortable and wary.
But it doesn‘t have to. There are ways to express compassion and empathy, words that can comfort and encourage.
What should you say when I, or anyone, shares their heart-their pain?
- Acknowledge my pain. Don’t be silent or gloss over my declaration by changing the subject. Silence often feels like disapproval and changing the subject feels like dismissal. I have just entrusted you with something important, something it was hard for me to share, something that is a great burden on my heart-let me know you heard me. Good responses that are always appropriate: “I’m sorry”; “That must be hard”and “My heart hurts for you”. In person, a hand on the arm or a hug is good. Give me space to cry if that’s what I need to do.
- Ask questions. Not the who-what-when-where-why questions that fuel gossip and make good news stories. But questions that can help me share more: “Do you want to talk about it?” or “How can I help you?”. It may take a few moments for me to answer-I may have to think about if I really do want to share more. You may help me by asking, “What’s especially hard right now?”
- Accept that this hurts ME-even if you think it wouldn’t hurt YOU. Everyone’s story is unique. You may be more emotionally, physically, psychologically and spiritually resilient than me. Great! But this is MY story, and this hurts ME. Please, please, please do not try to talk me out of my pain. Please don’t toss Bible verses or platitudes at me seeing if they will stick. Please don’t tell me about how YOU would handle my situation (unless I ask). And, more than anything, please do not turn my heartfelt sharing into a discussion of how my pain causes you pain. It may be true, but now I feel guilty instead of supported.
- Affirm me for sharing, for enduring and leave the door open for next time. It takes courage and energy for me to share my pain. Many days I gloss over inquiries because I’m just too worn out to spend the limited emotional energy I have left on the drama of sharing honestly. If I risk it, it’s because I’m either desperate or I trust you. Either way, let me know you appreciate my bravery. Tell me that you see how hard it is and that just carrying on is an accomplishment. Leave my heart better than you found it so I’ll be encouraged to share again.
Brene Brown has done some amazing work in the area of shame, hurt, compassion and empathy. I’ve found it valuable in my own valley and also instructive in serving others in theirs.
This short video based on her work is incredibly helpful. Please take a moment to watch it: Brene Brown on Empathy