What Do You Say Now?

There’s a great deal of bad news in our society today. Many people losing their jobs, losing their loved ones, not being able to afford health care. It’s scary times. And that means it is even more important for us to be open to communications for many types of support for people.

Can you think of a time when:

– A friend was facing a difficult situation, and you found yourself at a loss for words?
– You may have been angered by someone saying, “I completely understand how you must feel,” when you felt they had no idea?
– Someone might have said something to you that seemed inappropriate?

When facing a difficult situation such as the loss of the job, the realization that your life savings was swindled through a bogus investment scheme, or the diagnosis of a chronic medical condition, there are many things that affect how we feel and behave. Some situations may bring uncertainty about the future. Others may be difficult because what happened was unexpected. Whatever the situation, when there is a feeling of loss or disappointment, people’s response and words often have the power to help or to hurt. Many times, people say nothing at all because they do not know what to say or are afraid they will say the wrong things. Avoidance is rarely a good solution.

In a society where news, weather and sports are often the preferred easiest topics of conversation, many people may not be comfortable talking to people or about situations where there may be emotional distress. Younger generations may struggle most as they often choose the convenience of more impersonal communications methods such as e-mail and text messaging.

To understand effective ways to support and communicate with people who find themselves at a crossroads, it can be helpful to understand and distinguish between empathy and sympathy. While the dictionary defines them similarly, they are quite different.

Have you ever made a comment like, “Until they walk a mile in my shoes, they’ll never understand?” Empathy is what we do to try to understand another person’s situation and feelings. For example, a comment like “I completely understand how you must feel,” would come across as inappropriate unless you have personally experienced a situation that is almost identical to what the other person is going through. Instead, empathy is about asking questions, gaining perspective, acknowledging a situation and communicating understanding. Examples of questions or statements that are empathetic include:

– “How does this make you feel?”
– “What seems to be the most challenging?”
– “Tell me more about … ?”
– “What’s most important to you?”
– “How are you going decide about … ?”

Sympathy is when we feel sorrow for person and the situation. For example, we might say something like, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Sympathy is often communicated in greeting cards or by sending flowers whereby sorrow is expressed. Sympathy tends to be expressed when a situation occurs. Sympathy is also appropriate as ‘firsts’ after a loss, such as a first Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, birthday or anniversary.

“Empathy and sympathy are two different ways to help comfort and encourage others. We should all place tremendous emphasis on understanding our loved ones and what matters most to them and their families. By understanding their challenges, needs and preferences, we are better able to provide the level of attention they expect and deserve.