How NOT to Empathetically Listen

Written by: Brittany Glaser, M.A., M.Div.
How NOT to Empathetically Listen

Most of us want to be there for the people in our lives. We want to take care of them when they hurt and support them when they struggle. In these good intentions and attempts to help, most of us (myself included!) have a hard time empathetically listening. Here are some common mistakes:

  1. Say “I know how you feel.” Every person’s story and perspective is different. As much as we want to believe we can completely understand, the truth is we can’t fully feel how another person feels. Sometimes saying that we get it can take away the person’s chance to share and it also means we are making assumptions about their feelings.
  2. Try to fix it. Hearing about people going through something difficult can be extremely disarming and scary. It feels threatening at times and we want to help them stop feeling that way because it hurts to hear about it. Trying to fix the situation by saying, “Well have you tried…?” Or “Maybe you should…” Often makes us feel better but usually doesn’t help the person we are trying to listen to. Those statements can tend to take away from their experience and keeps us from really hearing where they are at/ what they need.
  3. Making meaning for them. When we hear someone’s pain we want to help them make sense of it by inserting things that make sense for us. Sometimes I hear myself or others say to those grieving, “Well God needed another angel” after losing a child or “There’s a reason that you lost him/her at that time”. While those statements might be helpful or meaningful to the person saying them, they often are told to someone when they are not ready to make meaning or try to understand the reason of their loss. Usually, when someone is grieving or in pain, they just want to be heard.

Empathy means “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It isn’t about looking at the person from our perspective, it’s about trying to step into their shoes and imagine how they feel. It’s about saying “I don’t really know how you feel but I’m here and this is hard.” It’s about acknowledging the darkness and grey without trying to flood in light. It’s about being willing to be uncomfortable with someone.

Empathy means you don’t have to make it better for someone, you can just be with them.

If you need someone to listen to you or help working through something in your life, we are here for you. Please call Summit at 678-893-5300 if you have any questions about starting therapy.