How to be Helpful When Someone is Hurting
Feb 26, 2013 12:23PM
By Ike Lasater
Many people feel uncomfortable when witnessing another’s emotional pain. They may try to soothe or distract the person who is hurting with a variety of well-intentioned responses. But sometimes those responses are not so helpful, especially if they don’t allow someone to experience and express their true feelings.
In our culture, it is socially acceptable to compare painful experiences, offer reassurance or a cheerful distraction, or attempt to solve the problem with advice. There may come a time when these approaches are helpful and appreciated. Initially, however, they may prevent a person’s real feelings from being heard.
For example, if a woman loses her dog and begins to tell her friends about it, she’s likely to encounter one or more of these responses:
• Friend #1 may extend sympathy: “I know just what you’re going through. When our cat died last summer, I couldn’t stop crying.”
• Friend #2 may offer reassurance: “Your dog lived a great life. At least now he’s not suffering anymore.”
• Friend #3 might point to a distraction: “Good thing it’s almost springtime. You’ll be busy with your garden and have lots of other things to focus on.”
• Friend #4 might offer what he feels is helpful advice: “You should consider adopting another dog who needs a home. That was the only thing that helped me when our pet died.”
While each one of these people is attempting to help a friend in need, their efforts may backfire if the woman in mourning has no way to express what she is feeling. A more effective response might therefore be, “Ah, I’m sad to hear that. Is it really hard right now? Are you missing your dog a lot?”
This last reply expresses empathy and allows the person who is suffering to share, and transform, their emotional pain. When someone is allowed to say what is true for them, they can eventually access a more still and centered place inside from which to choose their next actions. Often, the most comforting response to another person’s pain is the one that can help them to identify what they most need in the moment.
Empathy isn’t as easy as it looks. It takes practice to consistently choose empathy in the midst of emotionally charged situations. Ironically, empathy might be easier (and more gladly received) among strangers than with family members. That’s because people who know each other well can feel unsettled by changes in how their loved ones communicate. When seeking to extend empathy to family and close friends, it helps to be ready for some initial awkwardness or resistance. It can also be useful to make agreements, asking something like, “Would you be willing to help me better understand what you are going through?” before practicing empathy with those closest to you.
Ike Lasater is the co-founder of Mediate Your Life, LLC. For more information about Mediate Your Life trainings, call 413-658-4444 or visit MediateYourLife.com.