Compassionate Responses to Others' Pain
In the past few months, natural disasters have struck many parts of the world. Hurricanes, mud slides, earthquakes, flooding and wild fires have wiped out entire communities. Some lost loved ones, homes and dreams. Some lost everything.
Whether you know people directly affected by these events or not, at some point in your life you will encounter someone who lived through some kind of tragedy and who shares their difficult experience with you.
Hearing another’s struggles might be uncomfortable for you. You may try to offer sympathy, advice, or share a similar difficulty you or someone you know experienced. You may try to lighten up the mood and minimize the situation. All these ways of responding, though very common, are not helpful because they do not communicate that it is safe to be vulnerable with us.
When someone hears the indirect message that vulnerable sharing is not available, they tend to close off, and think that they should have not been so forthcoming with you. What’s more, they may feel sorry for themselves, disconnected from you, and even resentful.
So, how do you listen to and respond to those who vulnerably open up to you? How do you respond compassionately even if there’s an initial sense of discomfort for you? How can you let the person know that you hear them? How do you have these interactions without falling apart? How can you convey to them that they are resilient and capable of living through their hardships?
Let me share with you what I’ve learned works and doesn’t work in these situations. Try experimenting with these tips while you listen to someone who is sharing a difficult experience with you:
3 POWERFUL WAYS OF LISTENING
1. Become Stable
When someone shares a difficult experience, they may have a lot of emotional energy that needs to be expressed.
If you are not grounded, you may get absorbed in the other person’s experience, rather than provide the space for them to talk about their own story.
One way of grounding is to breathe and sense your feet on the ground, or if you are seated, breathe into your sitting bones and feel their weight on the surface on which you are seated. If you have learned other grounding techniques, use whatever you are comfortable with.
The more grounded you feel, the easier it will be to hold space for the person’s experience and the less likely it is that you will get lost in their emotions.
2. Open Your Heart
It is through the heart that we can feel connected with others and experience empathy. When we are empathic with others, we are following their experience and letting them open their hearts to themselves to understand what they were or are feeling about their own situation.
As someone is telling you about their loss or their hardship, breathe into your heart with the intention of connecting to their heart.
To open your heart to this person, you can imagine they came to visit you in your house and you simply opened the door to let them in.
3. Listen Beyond Words
I remember talking to a course participant once who shared with me he had lost his job that day. At first, I immediately thought he was sad or angry. I held space for him to talk. A few minutes later, I realized he was feeling free to engage in some creative projects he had left untouched.
If I had not been paying attention to what he was saying beyond his words, I would have missed his experience completely. At the end of the interaction, he said: “I didn’t really know I was feeling free because when I shared my news with other people, they immediately said ‘that’s so hard’ and I felt compelled to go along with them.”
When someone shares their struggles with you, be curious about what feelings and values might not be directly expressed. As you listen, ask yourself, what is this person feeling? What mattered to this person? What do they regard as important?
3 COMMON RESPONSE PITFALLS
Avoiding these common pitfalls will help you be more empathic and responsive.
1. “I’m sorry you had this experience.”
Offering sympathy, can have the undesired effect of keeping the person in the role of victim of life.
The negative impact of sympathy became so clear in a recent coaching session with a young client.
He shared with me that both of his parents had died when he was a boy. He trusts me and so he immediately said, “please don’t tell me you are sorry. When people tell me they are sorry for my experience I feel depressed. I see people change how they view me. It’s like they have pity for me. I’m no longer me, I am a victim.”
I thanked him for his trust in me and said “even though I cannot even imagine what it was like for you to have your parents die when you were a boy, I see that you want people to see you for who you are now, for your strength and independence.” With teary eyes, he gave me a huge smile and said “exactly!”
2. “At Least You Still Have …”
Difficulty, sadness and pain are part of our human experience.
If we try to have someone see the silver lining in their problems, we are unconsciously denying their very common and human experiences of challenge and adversity.
If someone is telling you about something that was hard for them, acknowledge the hardship, don’t try to prematurely go into helping them to feel better.
Learn to be okay with people feeling whatever they are feeling because feelings are transient; they will not last forever.
3. “You Should …”
Our desire to help often leads us to give unsolicited advice to someone who might just need the space to share their true feelings about their hard circumstances.
People are only able to hear advice when they are open, curious and willing.
If you still want to give advice, ask the person if they are interested in hearing some guidance or if their intention was to share with you about their experience.
Trust the person’s capacity to move into action at their own pace.
3 COMPASSIONATE WAYS OF RESPONDING
1. Ask Questions About their Feelings and Values
Once there is space to respond, after you’ve listened beyond their words, make empathic guesses out loud to check if you are understanding how this experience was for them.
You may say something such as “Were you scared when …?” “I wonder if you wanted safety in that moment.”
Asking these kind of questions, about what I call the person’s “internal landscape,” can help the person obtain greater clarity about the magnitude of their experience.
Tapping into the person’s values will help them start to consider actions they can take, because they have become aware of what matters to them.
2. Acknowledge Their Capacity and Qualities
Hardship is part of life, and so is human resilience. There is so much that we can learn from difficult experiences.
Let someone who had the courage to share their suffering with you see what qualities of capacity and resilience you see in them.
You might say something such as, “I see your strength and determination in your story and it inspires me to remember those qualities in myself as well.”
Or you may say, “I see your pain, and I sense how much you loved this person who passed away.”
When the person hears a reflection of their capacities and qualities they can embody those capacities and move into action. Sometimes, the most empowering response a person can hear is that someone is witnessing their own strength.
3. Express Your Wishes for Restored Well-being and Peace
When someone talks about their tragedies and difficulties with you, it is helpful to hear that you have caring wishes for them.
When you express wishes for restored well-being, you are helping the person remember that their difficult moments in life are just that, moments.
Your wishes can acknowledge that they will be capable of experiencing other moments, such as moments of joy, calmness, connection, safety.
Before you transition into another topic, you may say something such as “Thank you for sharing this with me, and my wish to you is that you once again have the experience of well-being.”
I hope that all these tips support you in holding space for people who have come to you to share a difficult experience. And as always, I would love to know what happens when you implement these tips.
May you listen with openness and speak with compassion and power,