Being seen and heard is one of my favorite experiences. There’s nothing quite like that moment where you feel like someone is totally listening and making space for your feels. It’s empathy in action.
My most treasured friendships have this feeling in abundance, but I recognize that empathy can be a scarce resource in many people’s lives. Some people tell me that when they are having a rough time and need empathy the most, they’re often greeted with anti-empathy. Like anti-matter destroys matter, anti-empathy obliterates the feelings of empathy that most of us want to experience.
Here are the five classic anti-empathy strategies.
It looks like: “You really should talk to HR about that right now.”
There’s a time and place for advice: When someone requests it. Advice can be a wonderful and transformative thing when it’s wanted. But when you tell someone about the crappy thing you’re experiencing and they immediately tell you how to fix it, it usually doesn’t land.
When we have big feelings about something, we need to have those feelings acknowledged before we’re really open to strategies for how to shift things. Asking my favorite question my loved ones ask me can be a good start.
It looks like: “I totally understand what you must be going through with your grandmother’s death. My dog died last year and I was so sad.”
Don’t get me wrong – animal death can be traumatic and is totally deserving of our grief. But grief experiences, and most other big feelings, are like snowflakes. They are unique. When we compare our experiences to someone else’s, it can make them feel decidedly un-empathized with.
Even when the grief is shared, like you’ve both lost a parent or been fired from a job, the specifics are going to be different. Don’t assume you know what someone else is feeling – ask and be gently curious instead.
3. Cure Evangelism
It looks like: “Oh my God, Kate. Have you tried essential oils for your migraines?”
If I had a nickel for every time I heard this (or some variation of it), I would have a seriously annoying trip to the Coinstar machine on my agenda.
Cure evangelism is when someone champions a cure for someone’s physical or mental health issue without much regard for what suggestions the person actually wants. It doesn’t take into account that this person probably thinks a lot about their health issues and has probably considered this “cure” already.
It also tends to be a natural segue for the evangelist to launch into a story about their own experience, taking the focus away from the other person. Instead, be gently curious about what they’ve tried and when they’ve found helpful to manage their condition.
4. Cheering up
It looks like: “The best way to get over a disappointment like this is to go have fun. Let’s go to this party!”
It’s so tempting to want to brighten someone’s day. But like advice, cheering up is only welcome when it’s wanted. Sometimes we just want someone to make space for our feelings. We want it to be OK that we aren’t OK.
So try empathy first, then ask if someone wants to be cheered up. Have those hilarious corgi GIFs cued up just in case.
It looks like: “I’m so sorry that happened to you. Oh, God I feel so bad.”
Sympathy is the feeling of pity for someone else’s crappy situation. It’s when you feel sorry for someone or feel bad that they experienced something unfortunate.
I’d say sympathy is the least offensive of the anti-empathy strategies. But as with the others, it can take the focus off the anti-empathy recipient, and put it onto the giver – in this case, by emphasizing how the recipient’s situation is making the giver feel (whether it’s sadness, pity, or anger on someone else’s behalf). With empathy, there’s a deeper engagement with the person who needs it most.
With all of these anti-empathy strategies, there is a time and a place. These tactics are not “bad” – they’re just not always helpful. And they’re going to be a lot more welcome after empathy has happened, if they’re welcome at all.
So sharpen your empathy skills and get good at asking permission before you employ anti-empathy. I promise your relationships will be stronger for it.