“This city just doesn’t click with me,” one woman explained. “I know everyone loves it, but I feel so lonely and out of place here.”
The women in the room came from all corners of the world and had joined me for a workshop called “The Joys and Challenges of Living Internationally”. What linked us was that we had all chosen to leave our passport countries and live abroad for a period of time. While we had acknowledged how much we had gained from the experience of living cross culturally, we had started to talk about the hard parts.
While most of the group nodded empathically, one participant said, “Oh, it’s not so bad. I didn’t have any trouble at all. You just need to get out and meet some people”.
I cringed and quickly reminded the group that everyone had different experiences with what made them feel at home. I wanted to make space for all feelings, even those that were negative. I hoped I had struck the right tone and that the person sharing would leave the group feeling supported and acknowledged, not dismissed and misunderstood. I also realized that the woman who claimed it was “not so bad” was likely just trying to help.
I have witnessed many common traps that people fall into as they listen to others discuss their feelings, especially ones that make them feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. It is important to remember that people talk about how they feel when they are searching for connection and understanding. How we respond can strengthen connection or weaken it.
Here are a few common mistakes we can make that might leave our friends and loved ones feeling misunderstood and some suggestions about how to maintain connection when discussing difficult emotions.
The response in the above anecdote is an example of negating. It is telling someone that their concern is not a problem, that it is not so bad or that they shouldn’t feel that way. It is the opposite of acknowledgement or validation which is almost always what people are looking for when they share their feelings. Whether you agree with what the person is saying or not, simply nodding or saying “I hear you” goes a long way toward making someone feel listened to.
Have you ever just wanted to vent or express yourself and been met with a barrage of suggestions? The truth is, most people who struggle with a problem have thought of (or heard) many solutions already, but for some reason, are still grappling with the issue. Perhaps they feel stuck or none of the solutions are appealing to them. Often what they are looking for is affirmation and understanding, not another recommendation.
As a listener, try repeating back what they said in their words. If you are tempted to offer a suggestion, ask first. I suggest saying something like, “Did you just want to vent or are you looking for solutions?” That way you either get permission to share ideas or know that it is best to just listen.
If you are sharing, let others know what you want/need. You can say “I just need to get this off my chest” or “I would love some suggestions about this problem”. That way the person you are talking to doesn’t have to guess what would make you feel better.
This dynamic is often particularly evident in the client/ therapist relationship. Some people express frustration that therapists don’t fix enough. They get frustrated with a therapist’s reluctance to give them “the answer”. All good therapists are trained to help clients find their own solutions. By asking the right questions, listening intently and providing safety and connection, therapists know that people can find their own answers.
Providing Sympathy instead of Empathy
Once when I was giving a talk about expat adjustment, I used an example of how I had particular difficulty with one of our many moves as a way to highlight the complexities of our emotions when we move. A woman in the audience said, “Oh, you poor, poor thing! I wish I had known it was so hard for you!” While this sentiment was very kind, I felt a little embarrassed. Had I been complaining that much? Did people see me as weak and helpless? Would they now pity me instead of understanding me?
The woman who said this gave me sympathy when what I wanted was empathy. What is the difference? Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone while empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Dr. Brene Brown explains, “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection. ” She goes on to explain that empathy is feeling with people while sympathy creates an uneven power dynamic by maintaining separation in the relationship. Watch her great animated short that describes the differences here.
How About That Weather?
Some people think the best way to help a person going through a difficult time is to refrain from mentioning it or to change the subject. They make small talk, ask questions about work — anything to avoid discussing the topic. People who take this approach usually say they don’t want to remind the sad person about the problem.
While it is true that over-focusing on a problem can be detrimental, not having your problem acknowledged at all can make the person who is struggling feel alone or that their issue is not important enough to be discussed. Most people grappling with difficult issues are thinking about them already — saying something will not remind them, but instead, help them feel more connected.
It may be that the person does not want to discuss it or it is not the right time. But knowing that you are there and thinking of them can help convey a feeling of support.
I Know, Right?
“If you think that is bad, let me tell you what happened to me”. It’s something we have all experienced — we are sharing something difficult and the person with whom we are talking changes the conversation to focus on their problem. Sometimes this is due to self-centeredness, but more often than not, it is a misguided way to connect with the person struggling. We sometimes want to say “I know how you feel. I have felt like that too” so we tell a personal story of our own difficulty.
The problem is, if we share our own story too soon or if our story is not really similar to that of the person struggling, we risk breaking the connection instead of strengthening it. Moving the focus away from the person who wants to talk and to ourselves can make it seem like we are not listening or do not care about what our friend is going through.
It’s ok to share your story with the person struggling once you have let them know you are listening. Saying things like, “I know it’s not the exact situation, but I also felt sad/angry/hurt recently when…” or “I can understand how lonely you are — I felt that when….”. Make sure the conversation goes back to them in the end — use your own experience as a way to help them feel understood, not to ignore their problem.
The longing for connection is one of our most basic human needs. When people share their feelings they take a risk. They offer out vulnerability hoping it will be treated with care. By pausing briefly and considering how we listen and respond, we can fuel compassion and empathy to value and strengthen our relationships.