“Looking on the Bright Side” Isn’t Always A Bright Idea
By Paula Shoup, ACC
When an employee, colleague, friend or family member shares a difficult situation with you, an empathetic response often can help them move forward. If you’re like me, you might naturally want to offer up some perspective by giving an example of something worse so that the person will feel better. Ever notice that most people do this? “That reminds me of the time I…”
Unfortunately, the outcome is often the opposite: sharing your own story may make the other person feel like his or her issue is not worthy of concern. It could shut that person down. Worse yet, (s)he might feel you have judged them as being petty or too sensitive. Helping them shift their perspective may be perfectly appropriate at a later time, after they have felt heard and acknowledged for their pain — which is very real.
Empathy does not mean jumping in and “feeling their pain” either. Instead, empathy works best when you acknowledge that person’s struggle and ask what (s)he needs. Does (s)he need you to listen more, acknowledge his or her pain, or give a hug? It is a very personal need that you will know only by asking — you can’t assume that what you would like is what another person wants.
It can be difficult to let another person suffer through the pain (s)he is expressing; you may be tempted to pull him or her out of it so the suffering will end. There is a balance that comes with practice. You don’t want to support a friend or colleague who is wallowing in self pity for weeks or years, and yet, you need to let them work through their feelings and express them fully so that they can move on. Sometimes people need a gentle yet firm push, and other times, they just need a peaceful presence to be heard.
The next time someone shares a difficult, painful story with you, stop before you start sharing one of your own. Let that person share his or her story. Acknowledge the pain (s)he is feeling, and the difficulty of the situation, and ask what (s)he needs in the moment.
About the Author:
Paula Shoup has over twenty years of experience leading and working with teams in large corporate organizations including Motorola, Honeywell, and Medtronic. Her expertise includes supplier negotiations and risk management, customer program management, and team leadership and facilitation.
Paula has a B. S. in Supply Chain Management from Arizona State University and is a professional certified coach through Coach U and the International Coach Federation. She founded her company, internalGPS in 2009. She provides private and non-profit businesses and individual clients with professional individual and team coaching and business support services throughout the United States. Her website is www.internalGPS.com. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and of the International Coach Federation.