Making space to talk: responding with empathy when someone’s struggling

Someone discloses to you they’re having a rough time or they’ve had some bad news. How do you respond?

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Sending hugs”.

“That happened to me”.

We’ve all done it.

It got me thinking about how we shy away from those difficult conversations. How when we don’t know what to say we reach for an old cliché, or pile on the sympathy.

It feels uncomfortable when someone says they’re in pain, especially emotional pain. We cringe at the idea that the conversation might get awkward – so we avoid it.

We change the subject.

Make a joke of it.

Or ignore it all together.

But, if a person feels brave enough to say something is wrong, it’s a big step for them. It takes a huge amount of courage to finally reach out. So what can we do?

It’s okay to acknowledge difficult news with an expression of sympathy. But if we can be there for that person, it’s also okay to connect.

The best way to be sure what someone needs (and not assume we know), is to ask them. And because we must take care of ourselves too, offer them something with the time you have available. Ask the question “What do you need today?”

If they reply that they don’t need anything or even ignore the question, then you’ve still opened a space for them to know that, today, you’re there if they need you.  And it’s okay to just ‘be’ with them, and listen too – if that’s what they say they need.

If you don’t know what to say, say that but acknowledge that it’s good to talk.

The difference between empathy and sympathy – a video voiced by Brené Brown.

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©️Copyright Delphi Ellis

About Delphi Ellis

Qualified Counsellor, Mental Health and Well-Being Trainer, and Mindfulness Practitioner. Creator of Monday Mojo™. Talks 'Lady Business', raising awareness of factors which predominantly affect Women's Mental Health like pregnancy and domestic abuse. Helping to improve the global conversation, and bring an end to stigma and shaming. Dream Explorer as seen on the telly. Avid tea drinker.

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