When Empathy Doesn't Work
Have you ever offered empathy to someone and received one of these responses?
- "You make such a big deal of everything. I was just joking."
- "You're being oversensitive."
- "I was just saying that. I didn't mean anything by it."
- "You try to make everything deep."
- "Lighten up, it's not a big deal."
- "No, I don't have any feelings about it."
- "You're just trying to manipulate me."
- "Yea, but . . . (they continue on with a repeating story without acknowledging your attempt to connect)"
There are a variety of needs people are trying to protect when they say these things. I might guess: ease, harmony, safety, acceptance, understanding, clarity, as a start.
How can you create connection in the face of these responses?
1. Go with the speaker and then go to your feelings and needs
"You make such a big deal of everything. I was just joking."
"Yea, I can see how it seems to you that I am making a big deal when I say that. What I really want is just to understand you better."
"You're being oversensitive."
"Yes, it's true I am sensitive. I want to be sensitive so we can understand each other and get along better."
"You're just trying to manipulate me."
"Yea, the way I am talking is a little unusual so I can see how you might have thought that. I am really just trying to hear you clearly."
Notice that in these possible responses, you are not agreeing with the speaker's perception. You are simply acknowledging their reality and then sharing your own.
2. Interrupt with a connecting request
"Yea, but . . . " In this situation the speaker continues their story without acknowledging your attempt to connect by guessing feelings and needs. You might interrupt like this:
"Hang on, I am feeling lost and really want to understand you. Would you be willing to tell me if the guess I just offered about what you're experiencing is close or not?"
3. More empathy
"You try to make everything deep."
"Sounds like you just want to have some ease and not get into this too much."
Of course neither empathy nor honest expression of your own feelings and needs will lead to connection if the other doesn't want to connect. In this case, you may need to give yourself some time to feel the sadness and disappointment of not having a connection with this person.
This week notice when your attempts at connection don't connect. Take a moment to reflect on the use of any of these strategies. Do you want to try again or do you need time to experience your own feelings and needs around the lack of connection with this person.