Most of us would like to think of ourselves as understanding and compassionate friends, siblings, parents, and partners.
But in reality, we often fall into conversational faux pas that give off a less-than-empathetic vibe.
And we probably don’t even realize we’re doing it.
To avoid this trap and be more empathetic, stop doing these 9 things.
1. Stop dismissing people’s feelings.
There is nothing less empathetic than invalidating a person’s feelings or experiences.
And yet, most of us do it. A lot.
We think we’re being helpful and morale-boosting when our friend tells us how they feel and we reply, “Oh no, you shouldn’t feel like that…” or “Oh, it’s not that bad…”
But what we are unintentionally saying is, “Your feelings are not valid. You are stupid/selfish/childish/ridiculous for feeling that way. Get a grip.”
When our child tells us they are rubbish at Math or that they feel stupid because they made a mistake in class, we start with, “Don’t be silly, no you’re not…,” because we want to protect and reassure them.
But the message we actually give them is that their feelings are wrong and in turn, they are wrong for feeling them. It doesn’t help them feel better, and it may make them feel worse.
In reality, most of us probably felt the same when faced with a similar situation at some point in our lives, and those feelings are both appropriate and necessary. It’s what we do with the feeling afterward that matters.
So, the next time your friend, partner, or child tells you about their negative feelings, don’t automatically jump into reassurance and problem-solving mode. Meet them where they are, and acknowledge and relate to their experience.
It’s a much more empathetic approach and it will almost certainly yield better results (and a better connection between you, too).
This clip from the lovely Disney film Inside Out gives a great example of what to do (and what to stop doing) when it comes to validating people’s feelings.
2. Stop interrupting.
Pretty obvious, yet we still do it.
Listening is central to being empathetic, and if you’re dominating the conversation with your constant interruptions and anecdotes, you can’t be listening.
When you keep interrupting, it gives off the vibe that you think your thoughts and opinions are more important, and it shows a lack of respect.
You may think you’re showing solidarity or sympathy by interjecting with your own, or others’ tales of similar woes.
But there’s nothing less empathetic than someone interrupting you when you’re spilling your heart out, especially if it’s to tell you how some people have it much harder or even worse, to tell you how they have it harder (more on this later).
Of course, back and forth is normal and important in conversations, but in situations where someone is expressing their thoughts or feelings, or discussing a personal problem, it’s more important to hold back and listen.
That’s not to say you need to sit there in silence.
There may be times when you need to clarify something to help your understanding, or simply voice your sympathy. But choose your moment. Don’t interrupt mid-story, instead wait for a natural pause or lull to speak.
3. Stop being judgemental.
You may think you’re being honest and true to yourself, but there’s nothing that shuts down empathy and creates distance like judgment and criticism.
After all, your truth is just that. Yours.
So next time your daughter, sister, friend, or co-worker is confiding in you, and you feel compelled to offer your (possibly inflammatory) opinion, stop and think.
Whose benefit is this opinion really for? Are you sharing this criticism because it’s in your friend’s best interests? Or are you just having a moment of superiority and want to show it? (And there’s no judgment here, we all do it.) How would you feel if the roles were reversed?
Yes, sometimes we do need to be honest (particularly if it’s been asked of us), but often we could benefit from practicing a bit of the old, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ mantra.
If we constantly judge and critique others’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, they will begin to feel uncomfortable sharing with us for fear of condemnation, and the lines of open communication will quickly shut down.
Extra reading: How To Be Less Judgmental: 19 Tips That Really Work
4. Stop giving unsolicited advice.
We all fall foul of this one.
We really want to help our friend or loved one out of their mire, and we assume that as they are talking to us about it, they must be looking for a solution.
So after a couple of minutes of listening, we jump into problem-solving mode and start offering advice.
Only they didn’t actually ask for it.
Maybe they will, later on, but right now they just want to get the problem off their chest, and it could be that doing that is a solution in itself.
So next time someone comes to you with a problem, just let them release the beast that’s bubbling inside them.
And then wait.
Maybe once they’re finished they’ll say, “What would you do in that situation?”—in which case, go for it. Or they may just say, “Thanks for listening, I feel a lot better now.”
Sometimes they may not verbalize it, but the relief in having vented will be obvious from their uplifted mood and body language.
And if you are absolutely desperate to share a nugget of wisdom but you’re not sure if they want to hear it? Ask them first!
5. Stop using negative body language.
We’ve all stifled a yawn while our best friend offloaded their recent woe, but that’s not what I’m talking about here (although it is best to appear alert and awake if you can).
I’m talking about that subtle eye roll you think your friend didn’t see, or sighing and looking at your watch if it’s a particularly long rant.
If you are doing all the right things verbally, but your body language screams, ‘How much longer is this self-indulgent nonsense going to last!?’, your friend is not going to get an empathetic vibe and they are going to shut down.
What your body is saying is as important as the words that come out of your mouth.
And for those of us with resting b*tch face (guilty here), try to be aware that what you think is your serious listening expression doesn’t always come off that way to others.
So, if you can, be sure to throw in some nods, murmurs of understanding, and a few varied (but appropriate) facial expressions so they know you are intently listening rather than simply giving them the stink eye.
6. Stop multitasking.
There’s nothing that says, ‘I’m not really listening to you’ more than someone glancing at (or blatantly reading) WhatsApp messages while they talk to you.
It’s rude and it totally invalidates the experience of the person you’re with.
They feel like they aren’t being prioritized, and that you aren’t paying attention to them, particularly if they are in a time of need.
And it’s no good saying you are listening because you can repeat back to them what they just said, because we all know hearing and listening are not the same.
You’re probably not being intentionally rude, but that’s the signal it sends.
I have a friend whose kind heart and good intentions mean she wants to be there for everyone all the time. So when we’re out for dinner and her phone goes off, she immediately reaches for it, because she feels she needs to reply to another friend who is invariably facing some crisis.
But as a result, she invalidates the crisis and feelings of the friend she’s face to face with.
So if you know you can’t resist the ping of your phone (and lots of us can’t), put it on silent, preferably out of sight and immediate reach so you won’t be tempted.
7. Stop making assumptions.
While it’s important to acknowledge and validate people’s feelings, it’s also important not to make assumptions about what those feelings are.
It’s easy to jump to conclusions that because you felt a certain way when something similar happened to you, that your friend, sibling, or partner will also feel that way.
Everyone is different. We each have the potential to experience the same situation completely differently based on our upbringing, beliefs, self-esteem, brain wiring, and so on.
So don’t jump the gun by validating feelings you assume they are having. Instead, use the listening skills we’ve talked about to understand their unique experience.
If it’s not immediately clear how they are feeling about something, keep your questions open-ended. Rather than, “Gosh, I bet that made you feel really angry, didn’t it?” or “Gosh, I bet you were angry, I would have been,” try, “Gosh, how did you feel when that happened?”
Extra reading: How To Stop Making Assumptions: 8 Highly Effective Tips
8. Stop comparing.
We’ve all been there (and we’ve no doubt all done it).
A friend or loved one is telling us about a problem with their finances, child’s behavior, or lack of sleep, and for some inexplicable reason we decide it will help them to know, “You are lucky you don’t have it as bad as XYZ.”
Coincidentally, I received a message with these exact words while I was writing this article after telling a family member about a recent health diagnosis I’d received.
I have no doubt their intentions were good and that they were trying to ‘put it in perspective’ and make me feel fortunate, but all it did was make me feel invalidated and that my problem wasn’t problem enough to talk about.
Yes, of course, there are people whose life situations are far worse than yours. And yes, of course, it’s good to have perspective and to focus on the positive.
But it’s also okay to find things hard, and it’s okay to admit that.
So stop assuming your friend should be able to cope just because your brother’s friend’s aunt’s colleague had it so much worse and they still managed.
Everyone experiences things differently, and we all have different thresholds for what we can handle.
9. Stop story topping.
No one likes a story topper. Fact.
Not only does it show zero empathy, but it’s also extremely annoying.
You’re spilling your heart out about your beau running off with his work colleague, and no sooner is your tale finished (or even worse, before it’s finished), your confidante starts with, “Oh my goodness, that happened to me too. Only it was my sister he ran off with, and now the whole family doesn’t speak, and Christmas is forever ruined.”
Or something like that.
Some people story top simply because they need to always be the center of attention, and not much is likely to change that.
But if you’re reading this article, it’s unlikely that’s you.
So, if you’re here and you’ve realized you’re guilty of story topping, it’s likely to come from a place of love. You were probably a) trying to connect with your friend and show them you understood, and b) trying to make them feel better by showing them how it could have been much worse.
The problem is, like with point 8, all you’ve done is invalidate their feelings and alienate them.
So, by all means, if you’ve faced a similar experience and want to show your bestie that you understand their plight, then do.
But make it clear through your words and body language that you are sharing your story because you sympathize with how they feel, rather than trying to steal their moment.
And perhaps dull your story down a bit so that theirs is still top dog on this occasion.