Reminder: Empathize First!

If you’re talking to someone who is seeking support, it is incredibly useful to empathize before giving advice. This is true even if the person is nominally seeking advice. 

I know to do this, but in the past few weeks, it’s happened at least three times that I can think of that I’ve been in a group situation where someone who was visibly upset came to the group for support with a difficult situation, and then we all jumped in with advice. I won’t go as far as to say that the advice was useless. I know from experience that I can partly take in advice even when I’m triggered, and that I will often go home and think about what the people told me to do.

But empathy first is still the way to go for a few reasons.

First of all, humans are bad listeners AND we often lack relevant context, so even if there weren’t emotional reactions to deal with, we’d still want to check to make sure we actually understood the question. I’ve spent many many hours tutoring, and I’ll repeat back questions to make sure I understand them a lot of the time even when a calm and composed student asks me about something not at all emotionally laden, like a math problem.

“What do I do with the fraction now?”

“So, you want to get your final answer and you’ve already multiplied the numerators and the denominators. But it looks like something isn’t quite right?”

Forgive the random off-the-cuff example. This brings me to my next point.

Once people talk through their problems, often they really can figure them out for themselves. 

Someone who understands things well enough to restate in different words  will be even more helpful than a rubber duck, it turns out.

And then there’s the big thing about how it makes people feel better to share their bad feelings with other people. There are plenty of corner cases where this isn’t true, but it’s a very good general rule. And if people are asking for support, it’s pretty likely that the right thing to do is to hear out their emotional stuff if you’re willing to spend time helping at all.

I love the whole NVC framework, but just trying to use feeling words at all is a big part of what matters.

“My son is doing this thing where blah blah blah blah etc. and I just don’t know what to do with him! I don’t know where he gets it.”

This is not the time for “It’s probably because…” or “Have you tried…” 

This is the time for “That sounds really hard and frustrating.”

“I’m having this problem at work where… and I can’t believe he did that!”

If you want to be a little less direct, you can do with “I’d be really angry I were in your position.”

I’ve probably mentioned some of these before, but here are some clues that the person needs empathy.

  • Tone of voice is probably the biggest one, and facial expressions if you’re good at paying attention to them.
  • Verbal cues like switching from using “I” statements to “you” statements, or telling long stories about why exactly something sucks are excellent indicators.
  • Whenever someone receives advice and becomes defensive, dismisses it, or gives a reason it doesn’t apply, it’s a good time to check in and make sure you understand the actual problem.