“At least…”

woman-with-shameHow Not to Give Empathy

It all came back to me. When someone tells you their problem, their story of sadness, and you want to give empathy, DON’T say, “Well, at least this or that didn’t happen” or “At least you still have…” That is just minimizing, or cheering up. Not empathy. Brene Brown says so.

But a few weeks ago, I found myself chatting with a friend with a young son, who told me about having broken up with her husband. I expressed my sorrow at the news, then heard myself say, “Well, at least your son had his dad for the first couple of years.” My friend looked at me for a moment, then looked down and said, “I don’t know much about how to give empathy, but I heard that saying ‘at least’ isn’t it.” I gulped, filled with embarrassment, looked back at her and said, “I think I need to take one of my own classes, right?”

And in a book study group on The Art of Empathy by Karla McLaren, a participant was talking about his sadness over not having as wide a circle of friends as he would like. I recalled having read the same section of the book and having had the insight (in high school) that just one close friend was all I really needed, so I began chirping about that insight, until another group member respectfully interrupted me and gently reminded me that this was not empathy for the first speaker.

As I apologized, I went into a full-blown shame reaction. Karla McLaren writes about shame. And here I was experiencing it, while watching myself, reporting on it to a group of people who were also interested in this emotion. I felt a wave of heat coming up my back and right up into my face, causing me to redden. McLaren says the action required by shame is: “Moderate your behavior so you don’t hurt or embarrass yourself or others.” The questions she suggests are: “Who has been hurt?” and “What must be made right?” I saw clearly how my talking had been diverting attention away from the first speaker’s sadness, minimizing his pain, and attempting to “cheer him up.” I took a few breaths, humbly acknowledged this behavior and how much I still had to practice, and brought back attention to the firt speaker’s needs.

Of course, he and the group forgave me, and even thanked me for being so open and vulnerable about describing my shame response.

These two experiences reminded me why I teach communication skills. The main reason is so that I can learn them better myself!