Please STOP Minimising
If you care about building or maintaining close relationships, then do this instead.
COLLEAGUE / LOVED ONE: “My daughter is having surgery next week”
YOU: “Oh no, I’m sure she will be ok. It’s a common surgery.”
COLLEAGUE / LOVED ONE: “It’s been really difficult juggling everything lately, there’s so many things on my plate.”
YOU: “I’m sure things will get easier, plus you are good at juggling lots of stuff.”
COLLEAGUE / LOVED ONE: “I’m fairly sure I know what to do, but I’m not sure where to start.”
YOU: “You’ll figure it out, you always do.”
Minimising is lazy empathy. It’s called ‘minimising’ because you take someone’s problems and you make them smaller. You’re hearing what the other person is saying, but instead of taking the time to truly understand what’s going on for them in their world, you fire off lame and lazy responses intended to inject positivity and make them feel better. But you are more likely eroding the trust in your relationship. If you are guilty of minimising other people’s problems (we all are at times), then read on!
EMPATHY vs. SYMPATHY
Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It goes beyond sympathy which is caring and understanding for the suffering of others. Take homeless people for example, you might care and understand about their suffering, but do you have the ability to relate to how it must feel to live on the streets? Similarly, you might care about the suffering of your family, friends and colleagues, but if you don’t take the time to understand their feelings you are not showing them empathy.
When we minimise the problems of others it’s typically a lame and lazy way of demonstrating empathy. We use responses intended to inject positivity and make them feel better, such as… ‘You’ll be ok’ or ‘You’ll figure it out’ or ‘Things will get easier’ or ‘It’s pretty common surgery’. This last one about surgery is what triggered me to write this article. My daughter recently went into surgery for a fairly common ear-nose-throat complaint, and while the surgery might be pretty ‘common’, my experiencing my daughter going into surgery was anything but common! I wasn’t looking for sympathy from family and friends about my daughter’s surgery, sympathy is feelings of pity, but this response of ‘It’s pretty common surgery’ really made me question how much these people in my life gave a sh*t. The truth is they do care, but empathy is a skill very few people have, and it actually requires time to be empathetic that even fewer people have available these days. We are all juggling our own problems, we don’t have time for others’ problems as well! Do we?
FACT! When a friend or loved one shares something difficult with you, they are most likely looking for someone to listen, not someone to inject their positivity. So if you care about having or keeping close relationships with others, then you might want to immediately stop minimising their problems and start using empathy. Here’s how to demonstrate empathy quickly and easily according to behavioural science…
Here’s some examples for how to quickly and easily show others empathy. Pick one or two of these, and practice these each time you feel inclined to inject a lame and lazy positive response to a loved one or colleague who deserves a little more than that…
1. ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR PAIN.
Seen as the best way to demonstrate empathy! Acknowledging how the other person likely feels, shows you understand their perspective and their specific situation. You’ve taken off your shoes and have decided to step into theirs. But you absolutely must take off your shoes before you can walk in someone else’s, right? People in pain want to be heard. They want validation that what they are going through is difficult. Here’s what it sounds like:
“I’m really sorry to hear you are going through this”
“This must be really hard for you”
“I hate that this has happened”
“I can see how this would be really difficult to experience”
2. SHOW GRATITUDE FOR THEM SHARING WITH YOU.
When someone chooses to open up to you it shows that they must really trust you. Your job is to honour that trust and respond with care. Let them know you appreciate being the one they’ve chosen to share this with. Acknowledge the trust. Here’s what it sounds like:
“Thank you for sharing this with me”
“I really value you sharing with me, it means a lot”
“This must be hard to talk about, I’m honoured you chose to share it with me”
“I’m pleased our friendship means you feel you can share this with me”
3. BE INTERESTED.
Going through hardships is often lonely and isolating. That’s why people share their troubles with others – they are seeking connection! They are hoping someone will take an interest in their story and understand how they are feeling. They best way to connect with someone is not by talking, but by listening. Show you care, be genuinely interested. Here’s what it sounds like:
“How are you feeling about everything?”
“What has this been like for you and your family?”
“How have you coped with what’s been happening?”
“Have you ever experienced anything like this before?”
4. BE SUPPORTIVE, OFFER YOUR HELP.
When it comes to empathy, our actions often speak far louder than our words. A hug, sending flowers, writing a note, or lightening someone’s workload are far more meaningful than injecting words of positivity. These sorts of actions help the person to feel supported. When being supportive and offering your help, articulate it in a way that shows you care. Here’s what it sounds like:
“I’m here for you”
“How can I help make things easier for you?”
“What do you need right now?”
“I would like to do_______ for you, what do I need to know?”
There is no script for empathy, but minimising other people’s problems should never be a part of what you say when others share with you something they are struggling with. Minimising is a lame and lazy way of injecting positivity, when the person is actually just in need of feeling heard. By picking two or three of the empathy techniques listed above, you will be honouring, building and maintaining the relationships and trust of the people sharing with you. And on a personal note, please never use the words “It’s fairly common surgery” to someone whose young child is going into an operating room. You all know who you are, and I forgive you : )
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Based on the same psychology research and strategies used for getting Army Marines more resilient, our Resilience training programs are relevant for anyone wishing to build more resilience for steering through everyday stressors, or for dealing with adversity or trauma such as constant change in the workplace. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to learn more about building your, your team’s or your organisations resilience.
Click, L. (2017). 31 Empathetic Statements for When You Don’t Know What to Say. Retrieved July 2019, medium.com.
Switankowsky, I. (2000). Sympathy and empathy. Philosophy Today, 44, 86-92.