How to Have Empathetic Conversations

Tell me more… these three words are the beginning of empathetic conversations. So why don’t we say them more often? Many are too wrapped up in their world, while others may fear the situation. I also believe we haven’t been shown how to say these words.

Whatever reason fits you, I want to encourage you to lean in. When someone tells you that they are struggling, our first instinct might be to say, “I’m so sorry,” or to give them a hug. Neither of these actions is bad, but they don’t open the door for the other person to talk. After giving them a hug or saying that you are sorry, where does it lead?

I would venture to say that most do not know what to do given this situation. You see, when most people reveal they are in despair, they simply want the other person to hear and acknowledge their pain. Yes, hugs are great, but those in despair need to share their pain in a safe and welcoming environment. They’re looking for a safe place and, more specifically, a safe person.

What People Want

Those in despair do not expect nor do they want you to fix them or to pity them. They want to be heard by someone who will actually take the time to listen with their heart. Instead, most people are too busy thinking of their next response. That or they are too worried they might say the wrong thing. So they don’t.

No Condemnation

I am not here to condemn anyone who has fumbled when a friend or colleague has opened up about a struggle with brain health. I am here to help. I am here to help them see how simple it can be to respond to someone in need of connection. So if you will humor me just a bit, I’d like to show you how to respond when someone opens up.

Let’s Go!

Still here? Alright. If I haven’t scared you off, let’s take a look at some steps. Context: You are talking to your friend, Sam, at work. You’ve known Sam for a few years, and in that time, you have gone to lunch countless times, worked on team projects together, and even hung out on the weekends. You feel like you know her, but you feel there’s still a lot left to learn.

You begin talking to her, and all of a sudden, she reveals she’s been struggling with anxiety and depression. You’ve always seen Sam as an upbeat and carefree person. Her words cause you to wonder how much you really know about her. She tells you how she has recently lost a person close to her.

You are blown away that this is the first time she has told you about the loss. A part of you is frustrated that she hasn’t shared the loss earlier. The other part of you wonders how you should handle the news. She looks like she is about done telling you what she had in mind.

Oh no! You think to yourself. What should I say? Do we know each other well enough to hug? Then, you quickly remember the times before when you both hugged. She looks like she is ready for you to say something, but where do you start? Should you say you are sorry?

PAUSE

At this point, many loving friends would open up their arms and embrace Sam with a hug. There is nothing wrong with this response. A friend sharing news of the loss of someone close to them is tough. Both sides are a little overwhelmed with the situation. Sam is relieved to finally share the news, and you long to offer your friend support.

Feeling compelled, you wrap your arms around Sam, you hear her begin to cry softly as you embrace. You continue the hug until Sam seems like she is ready to let go.

So what’s next? What should you do now?

You both take a seat at a nearby table. Before Sam told you anything, the two of you had walked to a cafe in your office that is pretty quiet this time of day. As you take your seats, she reveals how she thought she was doing okay but is now second-guessing herself. She tells you that her anxiety has been off the charts the last few days.

Scared about what to say next, you hesitate as you try and provide her with enough time to talk.

PAUSE

At this point in the conversation, it is understandable for anyone to not know what to say or how to respond to Sam. There is no shame if you feel this way. What is important here is realizing you do not need to have all of the answers. You are not here to fix Sam or her situation.

So what do you say?

“Sam, you mentioned that your anxiety has been really high lately. Can you tell me more about that?”

After asking the question, give Sam time. Just sit and intently wait for her response. Don’t check your watch, your phone, or the clock on the wall. Just wait while maintaining appropriate eye contact.

When Sam starts to talk, lean forward and make eye contact. Don’t be weird. Just pay attention and allow her to speak. This is not a time to offer suggestions or come up with solutions. The best thing you can do for Sam is listen.

So, what is the goal here?

  • Allow Sam to emotionally exhale
  • Be willing to follow up
  • Be ready to offer your assistance in finding a professional to help Sam.

Remember, you don’t have to have the answers. Listen with your heart. Lean in and ask questions that allow Sam to process what she is feeling. Maybe follow up with a question about the person she lost if appropriate. You said you lost someone close, “Could you tell me more about them?” Pay attention to the clues Sam gives with her response.

If she pushes back or shuts down, you could respond, “I can see that this is tough, you don’t have to tell me. Just know that I am here if you would like to talk about it more.”

Caution

This might get messy. People are tough, and we live in a broken world. There is probably a lot more behind Sam’s pain than you can imagine. Be ready to serve her and love her as Jesus loves us.

Craig Booker

Craig Booker

I'm the founder of Overflow. Through its newsletter, podcast, community group, and YouTube channel, Overflow helps you improve your well-being.

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