Do You Know When NOT to Encourage Others? The Difference Empathy Makes

 In Communication, Negative emotions, Relationships

Imagine your coworker comes back from a meeting and starts venting about how humiliated they were by another person’s response to their project update. Their frustration is boiling over as they tell you how this other person berated them for not doing the project a certain way, and they did it in front of everyone. What do you say?

  • “It’s not a big deal. I’m sure they were just trying to be helpful.”
  • “Don’t worry. Everyone knows that they tend to pick things apart.”
  • “Your fine. That person is just a jerk.”

Today we stopped by school so my daughter could get her parking permit for the school year. She came back to the car very upset. All of the permits were already taken. My first thought was to tell her that it’s not a big deal. She’ll just have to park further away and walk. And that walking to class is what she’ll have to do in college anyway so this is good practice.

After a few moments, I realized these comments would NOT make her feel better. Instead, this situation called for empathy, NOT encouragement.

Empathy is feeling with people. It’s connecting with something in ourselves that knows that feeling. In this cute and touching video, Brené Brown points out that empathy is,

  • Recognizing the person’s perspective as their truth
  • Staying out of judgment
  • Recognizing their emotion
  • Letting them know you understand their emotion

Empathy doesn’t start with “At least…” And it doesn’t try to make it better. Empathy is feeling their sadness, anger, frustration, with them.

For my daughter, I focused on how much the permit meant to her and said, “That sucks! I’m sorry.”

For the coworker situation above, it could sound like, “Wow! That sounds terrible!”

I tend to want to “fix” the situation or at least make the person feel better. But as Brené says, sometimes we need to go down in the hole with the person instead of trying to pull them out.

The next time someone gets upset, ask yourself if empathy would be better than encouragement.

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