Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Problem with How We Comfort: A Lesson in Empathetic Listening

There are a few ways that we tend to try and respond to someone when they share their feelings or painful experiences with us. Most of them end up invalidating the sharer.
1. Relaying your own experiences to try and make the sharer feel less alone.
Why this doesn't work: Firstly, this person came to you asking for help, so you should feel honored. This means that the conversation should revolve around them, not you. By sharing your experiences, you are shifting the conversation to be about your experiences, and therefor, the sharer may feel like you are invalidating their feelings. The second reason this doesn't work is because "you don't get it". I have sat here at my computer staring at a blank screen for hours over the past few weeks trying to find a more polite or elegant way of saying it, but that's what it comes down to. I have this issue the most when I try to share with others because my life is unusually complicated, and the responder sharing one experience that they share with me doesn't mean that they understand how that experience interacted with all of the other stuff in my life. As someone who has tried to share with many different people over the years, I recognize that this is a natural reaction and one with good intentions. That being said, I don't think that we should lose the opportunity to improve our comforting skills.

2. The "think positive" approach.
Why this doesn't work: I have had quite a few people in my life tell me to look at the cards I have dealt to me and "see them in a different light" and therefore, turn the negative things into positive things. First of all, when one is in the midst of the hand with the terrible cards, it's pretty hard to see the cards in any other order then they are in your hand. I know this from experience. You may realize that you've learned something from the experience a few years later, but it is nearly impossible to learn from experiences like that in the present. The second reason why this doesn't work is because it often feels like you are minimizing the terribleness (just imagine this is a curse word) of my hand by telling me that I can turn it around with my mindset. 

3. Pity or the "I'm Sorry" approach
Why this doesn't work: Oh goodness, how I despise this approach. I have seen it hundreds of times. I know that when you say you're sorry to me, you don't mean to make me feel worse, but the way I see it is that you don't know what else to do, so that's what you say. I know that we,  as humans, are naturally programmed to do this. We say and do what we know. And I know that you don't understand, but pity isn't the best way to try and convince me that you do. 

Alright, everyone still with me? Great. You're probably thinking, Emily, you just told me all of the ways that I try to comfort people are invalidating of the sharer's feelings; what do I do? Empathetic listening is a term that I learned on Dear Hank and John (it's a podcast, you can google it). Basically, you want to be a comforting mirror. You want to reflect the emotions that the person you are talking to are sharing with you. For example, "you seem really upset about this" is actually not an invalidating answer because it allows you to acknowledge the sharer's emotions without needing to understand an experience that you have never had. Strangely, this is also what you should do if your child is throwing a tantrum. The second part of empathetic listening is asking clarifying questions and  trying not to interrupt the person. Asking questions about the details of whatever the sharer is feeling will make them feel heard. Alternatively, you can just give them a hug. This is often my strategy because sometimes you can tell that someone is upset about something, but they don't want to talk about it.  So that's it. As always, leave a comment if you have questions or comments.

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