What empathy looks like

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Credit: Sean MacEntee, CC BY 2.0 license.

Nearly every week, I have a conversation with someone who tries to comfort me by showing empathy but accomplishes the opposite.

Here’s how it happens. Someone asks me how I’m doing. Instead of taking the easy way out and saying “fine” or “I’m getting by”, I decide to risk disclosure.

Me: I screw up simple tasks much more often than I used to. For instance, yesterday I showed up at the doctor’s office for my monthly shot, but it isn’t scheduled until tomorrow. I’d put it in my calendar wrong. Also yesterday I was making airline reservations online. After I finished, I noticed the reservation dates were off by a week. So I had to cancel and remake them.

Friend: Oh I know! I do things like that all the time!

Me: (Silence)

What can I say? I know they mean well, so I’d rather not be sarcastic. What these misguided empathizers don’t realize is that they are invalidating my suffering. By equating my cancer-treatment-induced struggle with their normal daily experience, they are saying I haven’t offered a valid reason to not be “fine.”

Maybe they’ve never been very good with the details of dates and times. But I used to be. I’m not anymore. So I’ve experienced a loss they have inadvertently canceled out. It doesn’t feel good.

True empathy says something like this: “It sounds like that’s a big change for you. How does that feel? What do you think is causing it? Have you found anything that helps you cope better with it?”. Real empathy would first try understanding my experience from my point of view. Trained counselors have learned to talk this way, to ask open-ended, validating questions rather than immediately trying to make me feel better by telling me things. I’ve found that most people aren’t interested in understanding. They are interested in identifying, categorizing, and fixing. Or talking about themselves.

When I get hit with “That happens to me all the time!” or “I do that all the time!”, I feel like saying, “Oh, you mean you have cancer too? I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

So far I’ve only thought that, rather than saying it aloud, but I’m not dead yet.

I live in hope that one day someone besides a trained counselor will respond to my griping by trying to understand what it’s like for me. It’s not difficult. Ask open-ended questions instead of making statements. Don’t assume you know how I feel or why. Don’t try to fix it for me with advice unless I’m seeking advice. Don’t compare my experience to your own or your uncle’s. Or do so with the utmost caution, seeing if the story you’re telling me resonates with my experience or is different.

I could escape the problem by avoiding disclosure. When people ask me how I’m doing, I could say “fine” and then change the subject. But I’ve never been that kind of person. And when I ask people how they are doing, I want to know.

(This post adapted from my book.)

6 Replies to “What empathy looks like”

  1. Honesty takes courage. Empathy takes an awareness that is a change of focus, from generally thinking of myself to zeroing in on my friend. I want to be someone who takes the time and makes the effort to give to the one I’m talking with.

  2. I recently read a blog created by a couple that sold most of their belongings in order to travel the world soaking up experiences. The article addressed traveling and the fact that many non-travelers can’t relate and so the couple typically have friends that are also travelers. The friends they had prior to traveling couldn’t relate to their desire to leave the comfort of the familiar and step out into the unknown. How much harder it is to relate to the journey of a person with terminal cancer. The open-ended question is risky. What if the person says something to which there is no platitude, no quick-fix response? Mark, I am grateful that your frustration led to your willingness to speak up and address the elephant in the room. I believe the vast majority of people want to know how to be supportive and helpful. You have given permission, guidelines and examples of what to say. I hope people, including myself, listen and remember.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this! I am at a season in life with many friends facing cancer and other serious illnesses and my intention is kind and want to say what is most comforting and helpful.

  4. Thank you, Mark, for opening my eyes to how my attempts to empathize may have (and most likely do have) the opposite affect on people of what I’m attempting to convey. God grant you the ability to forgive us “well-meaning people” and grant us, the well-meaning folk, the ability to listen rather than always speak. Hugs to you and Liz, Mark.

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