On Empathy Day this year I had the great pleasure of doing a talk on empathy to the staff at my main publisher, Walker Books. It was enlightening to hear their sensitive questions and they were kind (and empathetic!) enough to give me lovely feedback.
There was a question that came too late to answer so I said I’d try to answer it on my blog.
“It seems like there is a very delicate balance between active listening and practicing empathy correctly, and making assumptions or getting it wrong, however well meaning. If someone is going through a difficult experience and they feel that the people close to them aren’t practicing empathy enough or in a beneficial way, how can they suggest to others that what they’re doing isn’t helpful, without causing offence or pushing well-meaning loved ones away?”
The answer I gave in a quick email was:
That is a very good question. I’m not sure I have a snappy answer, despite the fact I’ve thought about it a lot and after my sister died I came close to writing a whole book about how to talk and how not to talk in support of someone going through loss. I think perhaps the way to tackle someone who’s making those mistakes (which are very common) is along the lines of “I know you’re trying and I appreciate that but I can’t expect you really to know how I feel and what I most need is someone to listen and hear – you don’t have to say anything because no one can fix this and I just need to get there in my own time.” We want to fix but often we can’t. I think I probably should have written that book and then the questioner could buy it for the person who is getting it wrong!
How we get things wrong
I guess we all know there are wrong things to say when it comes to supporting someone through grief, or terror or any serious suffering. But we might not have had the chance to think about what those wrong things are. We’ve probably all made mistakes – I know I have. It’s not easy. But it’s also not as hard as you might think.
In 2019 my younger sister was diagnosed, out of the blue, with a terminal set of cancers and she lived for just over five months from diagnosis. In that dreadful time, there were (still are) different circles of people needing support, beginning with her and radiating outwards through her husband and daughters, me and our other sister and parents, and other people who loved her. And we will all have experienced it differently but what those of us close to the centre certainly experienced was people quite unwittingly saying the wrong thing or not doing what we needed.
Sometimes quite spectacularly so.
I got it badly wrong myself on the phone to my sister when she first spoke to me after diagnosis. I made the mistake of trying to fix. I hope she forgave me. We were all learning.
As I said in my talk in empathy, there are three ways you might know what someone needs:
- A deep innate intuition – highly unlikely to be enough for extreme circumstances so don’t rely on how good at this you think you are
- Personal experience – a big help but not enough because no two people’s experiences and no two people are the same
- Listening to the person (or other people) tell you
Listening and hearing – and then asking and listening and hearing some more, and doing this much more than talking – are the most powerful tools.
Here are some mistakes that people make (though not everyone will see these as mistakes but trust me – listen to me – when I say that many will.
- “I know how you feel” – (You don’t)
- “I’ve gone through the same” – (You haven’t – you’ve gone through similar and in any case your previous suffering isn’t making me feel better – it could be making me feel worse)
- “So and so had that happen to them” – (See above)
- “Modern medicine is amazing / doctors can do amazing things” – (Unless you are a medical expert in this actual field, this isn’t helping – you’re trying to fix or minimise and it doesn’t work)
- “So and so had that cancer/illness and the doctors said nothing could be done/he’d die in three months and three years later he’s still fine” (or even worse “he lived for three years”. This is completely irrelevant unless the person has asked for such stories, which is a bit unlikely.)
On another topic, my grandson was born prematurely and I grew very drained by well-meaning people telling me about “X, who was born prematurely and is now a hulking great rugby player/ brain of Britain” and the “modern medical miracles” thing. Whatever, but I was worrying about this baby, now, and these comments did nothing to allay my worries and had absolutely zero relevance. (He’s very well, by the way!)
All those types of comments do is undermine a legitimate, utterly valid fear or grief. They do not listen. They do not help.
Those comments are about trying to fix.
You cannot fix tragedy – you are not God
You can only give the person what they most need: to be heard. And for someone to dare to come down to that dark horrible place with them. It’s the greatest act of empathy and humanity to be able to do that.
Think about it: if you imply that you can fix this, you imply that you are stronger, cleverer, more powerful than the person going through the suffering.
The even worse thing than saying the wrong thing
But there’s another wrong thing people do: nothing. More painful than any accidental and entirely well-meaning and therefore forgivable wrong words is when someone close enough to care says nothing. The best thing to say when you don’t know what to say – because often there’s nothing else to say – is “I’m so sorry – I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine how this feels for you.” And then, if you are close enough to say this, “I am here any time you want to talk or cry or be angry or eat pizza or anything at all.”
One point of mitigation
I think we need to understand that empathy takes a lot of brain bandwidth and headspace. And at the time when you need support, some people around you will not have that headspace and it won’t be their fault – or yours, obviously. You might need to turn to someone else. Try not to feel offended. They could not step up when needed and that’s just how it was. Perhaps you will find it hard to trust or rely on them again and it might damage your friendship. But it might not. Only time and the effort on both your parts, if you both choose to make that effort, will tell. It’s not your duty and it might not be your choice. But it’s not the most important thing – that is the people who did help, who did try, who were there.
So I would simply say to the questioner: can you find a way to send anyone who needs it to this blog post?
It might not be easy. It might offend and I don’t want that. But if you can’t, you will need to find a way not to hear the unintentional insensitivity. You don’t have the duty of changing people. And if you yourself are dealing with pain you might not have the headspace to
But if you can find a way to get all the people around you to discuss what words and actions help and what don’t, that conversation could be very helpful, enlightening and improving. Everyone could benefit.
However, not everyone can find this empathy so we can’t always expect it. I was going to say “I’m sorry for their loss” but that might sound facetious when I don’t mean it to be. But I am sorry because I think the ability to listen and hear and try to say what someone else needs is a valuable and remarkable skill to have. And the more we try it the better we get.
For those going through loss or fear, surround yourselves by people who will hear you and be there for you. But don’t condemn those who can’t. It’s just how it is.