Empathy: the Dos and Don’ts

American’s looooove to ask you how you are. And that’s not really a huge problem, but when you’re literally just passing someone you know and neither of you really stop to talk, and they just call out “hey! how ya been?!” it’s a little ridiculous? Silly? Pointless?

The only acceptable response in that instance is some variation of “good,” or “great!” or even the classic “oh, y’know, just livin the dream!”

Honestly, is anyone just going to turn around as the other person passes them and bare their soul in the middle of the Walmart parking lot? “Yeah, it’s been rough, I got diagnosed with depression and fired from my job.” No. That would make things awkward. And we all know that people say that kind of stuff in passing as a habit–not because they actually, truly care. OR maybe they do care, and chose a poor time and place to show it.

I’ve been aware of this flaw in our communication pattern for a long time, but even I can’t help but carry on the trend. It’s so habitual. So I can’t blame anyone else for doing the same thing. But there are some things that take it a step further into “why are you doing this” territory.

So here’s Tyf’s Hot Take How-To Guide on how not to look like a douchebag jerk when you’re trying to be empathetic.

Don’t tell them how they should be.

I once had this friend acquaintance who would regularly ask me how I was (like they do). I’ve always been a pretty honest person, so I would tell her that life was hard. It just was. Sorry? One day, she told me “I don’t like asking you how you are because you never answer ‘good,’ and I just want you to be doing good!”

Uh… thank you? I, too, would probably enjoy that.

Do listen!

If you’re going to ask a question without expecting a response, what’s the point? If you’re going to have the same conversation with someone every day, what’s the point? If you want me to guess what’s in your head, then this isn’t really a cool kind of relationship we have here. You don’t have to play therapist. If a person says “I’m not doing so great,” you can ask them to expand or you can say “I’m sorry to hear that, I’ll pray for you” or give them a hug or a cookie and move on. If they’re an American, they’ll be used to it! It happens several times a day!

Don’t say the thing

You know which one I’m talking about…

I was talking with a new friend the other night and they asked “how are you really?” (because we need to add the “really” when it’s a serious inquiry.) So naturally I felt like it was a safe space to be open with how I was feeling, right? So I was. I told them that it’s been really frustrating because I’m trying to find a job and it’s not going my way and I’m not loving it. I wasn’t being super negative, I was even trying to maintain a positive outlook. But even if I was being negative, they. asked. how. I. was. really. doing! 

Protip: if you ever ask me how I’m really doing, you’d better be ready for the freakin flood. Because it might come at you. If you’re not equipped with that kind of  emergency damage control, then don’t try to open those kind of flood gates. 

So anyway, we’re having a good chat, and they’re even being pretty helpful, but then they say the thing. The most veiled, well-meaning but completely condescending comment. And it was probably because they didn’t know what else to say, but man could it have been more helpful than this. They said “well, just remember… someone always has it worse than you.”

Uhh…. once again, thank you???

Do you honestly think I don’t know that? You think I go home to my warm bed in my mother’s house where she lets me live where there’s food in the fridge and a closet full of clothes thinking that I have it the worst in the world? Yikes, buddy.

Reality check: when any of your friends are going through it, chances are they don’t believe that they have it worse than everybody in the whole world. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be sad and frustrated. And telling them that they shouldn’t feel bad makes them feel bad for feeling bad and that’s just a lot of layers of bad feelings. Like an ogre. Or an onion. No wonder they’re crying.

This is a tired topic, but I still get people telling me it could be worse. And honestly, I feel like we should be better than that. It’s not empathetic. It writes off someone’s emotions as insignificant and makes them feel like you’re not the person they want to come to with their emotions. Congrats, you built a wall and you made them pay for it.

Do be understanding and move on with the conversation if you feel like the unloading is over. 

It’s like moving into a house. When everything is unpacked and set up, you don’t try to look for more things to unpack and set up, you relax and enjoy the new digs. So just relax and enjoy the company. Hopefully the person unloading will naturally move on, but if they don’t, remember that you asked for it. You unpacked the house, now live in it. And don’t you dare comment on the lack of curtains, it’s been a rough move. 

Don’t make it all about you

We’ve all talked to that person that just makes everything about themselves and tries to one up you in everything. You can simply say “I got no sleep last night” and they immediately launch into “oh yeah, well not only did I not sleep, I was also sick with the flu and in the bathroom half the night, WITH a crying baby and potty-training puppy while my upstairs neighbor learned to waltz in tap shoes.”

Honestly, when these one-uppers pull this, do they want a round of applause? A ribbon? Some sleeping pills? Nobody asked you, and frankly, in the future, nobody will want to.

You don’t have to leave yourself completely out of it, but stay focused on them if you ask them about them. I just don’t feel like that’s a lot to ask.

Do tell relevant stories 

If there are relatable stories to be told, tell them at the right time. If there are success stories to be told about a situation that seems hopeless, tell them at the right time. If there are relevant jokes or memes, dear heavens, please tell/show them at the right time. Laughter is the best medicine. Well, doctors might disagree, but it’s the best medicine that is both legal and free, I know that.

Don’t pep talk

You are not a coach or a mentor or a therapist or their motivational speaker. Don’t act like it. It makes the situation feel like you’re on some type of pedestal and they’re below you. Your struggling friends already feel small, don’t add to the problem.

Do encourage

Even if just a “I think you’re great and I know you can get through this” is nice if you mean it. Some people just want to feel sad for a bit until they feel good enough to change it. What they need in the meantime is someone to remind them that they aren’t a failure. If you can just do that, it will go a long way.

Do offer help if you can

If you know something that would help them (and it’s not essential oils), tell them you’ll help. They need a job and you have a hook up? That’d be really baller. If you can’t offer help, that’s fine. Chances are, they didn’t come to you for help. They just wanted to know somebody was there.

Do offer money

I mean it couldn’t hurt 😉

The trick to empathy is putting yourself on their level and going through it with them. They don’t need relief, they just need to feel like they aren’t alone. It’s one thing to know it, it’s another thing to feel it. So take off your coach’s whistle, put away the therapy clipboard, and just be a friend. And if you don’t know how to be a friend, you definitely should have watched more Barney growing up. There are probably reruns somewhere.

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