Empathizing vs. Commiserating

The loss was hard, his team was never really in the game. His friends were cringing as they watched the action, the errors in their friend’s offense and defense skills were evident. After the game, they smiled and said good job anyway.

“Thank you guys. Appreciate your support. I can’t believe how biased the refs were. We could have had a chance if they called fouls on the other team. They wouldn’t let us get away with anything, but they let the other team beat us up!”

His friends were surprised that he blamed the refs when it was so obvious that he was outplayed and the game was called fairly. They didn’t want to upset him even more so they decided to agree with him.

“Yeah, you’re right. I’ve had those refs before and they were biased against my team too. They suck! Hopefully you will have better refs next game.”

The friends were being empathetic, they were being good friends. Right?

Wrong. They were commiserating–pitying their friend and diving right into his misery.

They were supporting the illogical claim that the loss was to be blamed on the refs. In doing so, they were robbing their friend of the opportunity to learn from his mistakes and make improvements. It gets even worse. Blaming the loss on the refs makes the problem unsolveable. The friend actually has a lot of power and the solution to the problem could be well within his control. The problem was not the refs and in blaming it on them, the friend lost all of his power to fix the problem.

What if the friends had responded like this instead:

“Man, that game was tough. I think the refs were pretty fair and you guys did a great job working hard even after it was clear it would be a blow-out. There are a few things to work on with offense and defense. Once you fix those things, with the way you guys hustle, you’ll be unstoppable.”

The second response was empathetic, positive, honest, and empowering. It put the solution to the problem much more within the friend’s control. That is being a good friend.

Have you ever responded to someone in a similar way? In your attempt to be empathetic, were you actually dishonest and added to the problem rather than helping with solutions?

What about the time a colleague told you that she has the worst class ever and you agreed with her? Even gave more evidence to support the claim? Did your colleague feel better about her class after talking with you?

What about the time a colleague complained about another colleague or your principal and you threw more fuel into their fire? Were you being a good friend and helping them move in a more positive direction?

Empathizing vs Commiserating. Which team are you on?

Trouble deciding? Listen to each team’s theme song to see which one you most relate to:

Team Commiserating:  It Ain’t My Fault by Brothers Osborne

Team Empathizing: Stronger by Kelly Clarkson

It’s true that heroes are inspiring, but mustn’t they also do some rescuing if they are to be worthy of their name? Would Wonder Woman matter if she only sent commiserating telegrams to the distressed?      -Jeanette Winterson

1 thought on “Empathizing vs. Commiserating”

  1. Thanks for sharing Allyson. I have to admit I have been guilty of this!! Something I need to work on. It really does take the power away if we blame our losses & failures on others. We need to take ownership and help others do the same.


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