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4 easy ways to express empathy in your next conversation |

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Pete Ryan

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here. 

Slumped shoulders, downcast eyes, avoiding your texts — it’s not hard to recognize when one of your friends, family members or colleagues is having a rough day.

What isn’t quite as easy: Knowing what to say.

“Empathy may come naturally to us, but it gets lost in translation, especially in conversations,” says social entrepreneur Gwen Yi Wong in a TEDxMonashUniversityMalaysia Talk.

Too often we rush in to solve the problem or offer glib advice or consoling phrases like “Things could be worse” or “Look on the bright side” — all in an effort to make them feel better.

But what the other person really needs is someone who will listen without judgement or commentary.

“Empathy is the ability to feel and relate to another human being,” says Wong.

Put another way: When a person treats you the way that you would like to be treated, that’s empathy.

Wong said she always craved having “deeper conversations” with the people in her life, but it wasn’t until she left her “dream city” of San Francisco and returned to Malaysia, broke, depressed and burnt out, that she started opening up to friends about her feelings.

Those conversations led to more conversations and hours of research, and ultimately Wong founded Tribeless, an empathy training company.

Here, she shares four steps necessary to maximize empathy with a friend in need:

1. Show them that you notice they’re struggling 

Acknowledge the other person’s unhappiness and let them know you can relate to what they’re going through. Start off with a simple “Hey, are you OK?” or “You look like you’re worried about something.” After they tell you that they’re having a hard time, you can follow up with a supportive statement like “I’ve also been feeling overwhelmed” or “This is a tough time for me too.”

2. Ask them: “Can you help me understand?”

This deliberate phrasing sends the message you’re not trying to fix their life but you’re curious, you care and you want to to hear more. For example, if a friend complains that they’re feeling overlooked at work, ask “Can you help me understand what’s making you feel like other people are getting more recognition than you?”

3. Share an observation

Tell them something you’ve noticed that could be helpful. You might say to the friend who feels overlooked at work: “You’ve mentioned a colleague named Emily who’s praised you to the higher-ups before. Remind me what she said about you” or “You light up whenever you talk about how you ended up in this field. Maybe you could tap into that excitement somehow?” Reminding ourselves of positive attributes can us when we’re feeling low.

4. Offer an alternate perspective

If possible, come up with an example — from your life or from another person’s — of someone who faced a similar dilemma. Grounding your comments in a personal experience can keep you forms sounding “preachy or fake,” says Wong. For instance, you might say, “Remember Jane’s good-bye toast when everyone thanked her for modeling such great work habits? She was shocked because she hadn’t realized her checklists were helpful to the whole team. You also might be having much more of an impact than you think.” Regardless of what you say, be sure to let them know you’re firmly on their side.

You can decide what to do next — whether it’s continuing the conversation, going for a walk or changing the subject — based on your friend’s response. Just be sure to follow up with them at some other time so they’ll know that your interest was sincere and you were really listening, not just going through the motions.

And the next time you see a friend looking weighed down, speak up. As Wong puts it, “Every conversation is an opportunity for us to listen, to hold space and to offer an empathetic response.”  

Watch her TEDxMonashUniversityMalaysia Talk here:


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