When colleagues confide in us about struggles they are going through, we want to help. We want to lighten their load and have them walk away from our conversation feeling better. The tricky part is how to actually do that. How do we move from commiserating to empathy? Let’s look at an example.
A teacher on your grade level team comes to you at the end of the day and rants about a particular student’s behavior. What is your likely response?
A. Oh my gosh, I know what you mean. That student’s behavior is out of control. I don’t know what to do with him either. I don’t know how you are keeping it together.
B. Oh man, that sounds like a hard day. You have been a great help to me on my hard days. How can I help you?
C. Well, at least we have jobs, right?
Some of us would chose answer A, thinking that if the teacher knows that it is not her fault, she will feel better. And, she might. For a moment. But, it doesn’t help her solve her problem or lighten her load in the long run. It doesn’t help her believe in herself and her ability to make the problem better. Answer A is an example of commiserating–two people being miserable together. The saying, “Misery loves company” is so true. We often try to connect through shared misery. But, two miserable people cannot solve problems together. They don’t lighten each other’s load, instead they inadvertently add to it.
Answer C is an example of what Brené Brown coined as a new verb–“silverlining”. It’s not that helpful either. Yes, we want to be grateful for what we have, but being reminded of that in a stressful moment can be exasperating, and doesn’t move us closer to solving the problem. Your colleague would likely walk away thinking, “Well, I am never going to her for help again. I feel worse now.”
How might answer B feel? Like feeling with your colleague? With answer B, first you acknowledge and validate her feelings. You let her know that she is not alone. Then, you let her tell you how to help her. In the moment, a really funny dad joke might be the best thing for her. Or, she might want to hear how you have handled similar situations. Or, she might want ideas on how to communicate with parents. Or books to read. Or just reassurance that she is a good teacher and that she can get through this. Answer B is an example of empathy, of connecting through shared feelings and allowing for forward movement.
Here is the hard truth. Commiserating is a selfish act. It is born from a desire to connect, not problem-solve. In the definition of commiserate, the word “pity” comes up frequently. Do any of us want pity from each other? I don’t think so either.
Empathy is a selfless act. It is born from a desire to help. When you look up the definition of empathy, you see “shared feelings” and “togetherness”. That is what we actually are looking for with each other. Empathy is not always the easy route, but it can become easier with practice.
Here are a few great resources that can help us practice looking at each other through an empathetic lens:
- Jimmy Casas introduced me to this video called “The Hidden Story”. It is such a powerful reminder that everyone has their own story, and asks us how we would treat them if we knew their story. Take three minutes and watch it, you won’t be disappointed.
- This video animates Brené Brown describing the difference between empathy and sympathy, and it sparked a life-changing moment for me. I watch it over and over as a reminder.
- Sometimes we need help with what not to do. Here are three don’ts I included in The Path to Serendipity about empathy:
1. Don’t put yourself in others’ shoes because you will end up with more than just stinky feet. You will end up with an inaccurate perception of the problem. It is not about how you would feel or handle the problem. It is about how they feel and how they might best handle the problem.
2. Don’t kick people when they are down by making a judgement–behind their backs or to their faces. Accurate or not, they just don’t need your judgement. They need your love and support.
3. Don’t assume you know how to help. Instead, ask four very important words, “How can I help?”
What helps you move from commiserating to empathy? Share your ideas and resources with us because we are so much better together.
When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.