Slumped shoulders, downcast eyes, avoiding your texts — it’s not hard to recognize when one of your friends, family members or colleagues is having a rough day.
What isn’t quite as easy: Knowing what to say.
“Empathy may come naturally to us, but it gets lost in translation, especially in conversations,” says social entrepreneur Gwen Yi Wong in a TEDxMonashUniversityMalaysia Talk.
Too often we rush in to solve the problem or offer quick advice or consoling phrases like “Things could be worse” or “Look on the bright side” — all in an effort to make them feel better. But what the other person really needs is someone who will listen without judgement or commentary.
“Empathy is the ability to feel and relate to another human being,” says Wong.
Wong said she always craved having “deeper conversations” with the people in her life, but it wasn’t until she left her “dream city” of San Francisco and returned to Malaysia, broke, depressed and burnt out, that she started opening up to friends about her feelings.
Those conversations led to more conversations and hours of research, and ultimately Wong founded Tribeless
, an empathy training company.
Here, she shares a few steps that can maximize empathy when you’re talking to a friend in need:
1. Show them that you notice they’re struggling
Acknowledge the other person’s unhappiness, and let them know you want to know more about what they’re going through. Start off with a simple “Hey, are you OK?” or “You look like you’re worried about something. What’s going on?” Then listen to what they have to say without trying to cheer them up, distract them or tell them what to do.
2. Ask them: “Can you help me understand?”
This deliberate phrasing sends the message that you’re not trying to fix their life but that you’re curious and you care about them. For example, if a friend complains that they’re feeling overlooked at work, ask “Can you help me understand why you feel like other people are getting more recognition than you?” or “Can you help me understand how feeling overlooked is affecting how you think about your job?”
3. Share an observation
If it seems appropriate, tell your friend something you’ve observed about them. You might say to the person who feels overlooked at work: “You light up whenever you talk about how you ended up in this field. Do you still feel that way at work?” Reminding people about their positive attributes can be helpful when they’re down, but keep your observation short and keep the attention focused on them and their experiences, not on you. Regardless of what you say, let them know you’re firmly on their side and you’re there to listen and support them. Even if you do have advice that might be able to help them, keep it to yourself.
You can decide what to do next — whether it’s continuing the conversation, going for a walk or changing the subject — based on your friend’s response. Just be sure to check in with them on this topic at some other time so they’ll know that your interest was sincere and that you were really hearing them, not going through the motions.
And the next time you see a friend looking weighed down, speak up. As Wong puts it, “Every conversation is an opportunity for us to listen, to hold space and to offer an empathetic response.”
Gwen Yi Wong