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Navigating Difficult Conversations:
Choosing Empathy Over Advice

girl friends hugging each other after a difficult time for one of them
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Navigating Difficult Conversations:
Choosing Empathy Over Advice

Responding to our loved ones when they come to us about a difficult situation they are facing can be hard to navigate. At our Family therapy clinic in Toronto, we often encounter this dynamic. In these situations, many of us have a natural inclination to offer advice. While giving advice can be helpful at times, it can also shut down communication, shifting the focus of conversation away from their unique experience and toward the advice giver. The other person can be left feeling like they weren’t heard or understood.

 

While giving advice comes from a good place of wanting to help, it is also a way to respond that allows us to avoid sitting with the uncomfortable emotions that are being shared with us. We may also feel helpless and want to fix things for our loved one, so jumping into advice giving can make us feel empowered. We leave the conversation feeling like the problem is solved and that we have helped the situation. What we may have really done is reacted in a way that allows us to manage our own discomfort with difficult emotions. However, we have not successfully supported our loved one and did not provide them with the opportunity to express their emotional experience and what they are going through.

Embracing Difficult Emotions

 

Instead of giving advice, our clinical psychologist specializing in family therapy in Toronto suggests trying to respond empathetically and work to completely understand our loved one’s situation. Responding empathetically starts with sitting with difficult emotions, which can feel very uncomfortable. Work to embrace difficult emotions when providing support:

 

  • Tune into your own mental and physical responses. How does this emotion feel in your body? Take a deep breath and allow any feelings to come up without judgment. 
  • If feelings of anxiety or tension arise, that can be a sign that we are avoiding our own emotional response. It is normal for us to feel tense during these situations. We can respond to this tension by using self-talk to note things like:  
    • “I don’t have to fix this but can sit with these feelings and just provide a supportive safe space.” 
    • “Empathy is helpful and I can tolerate feeling awkward at first.”
    • “Empathy is proven to help others in times of need.” 

 

Responding Empathetically

 

Responding empathetically involves working to fully understand our loved one’s situation and the way they are feeling. The following strategies can be helpful when responding with empathy to support the other person, as advised by our Family therapy clinic:

 

  • Don’t assume, rather ask. We often make assumptions about what someone is thinking and feeling, but asking goes a long way and allows the person to feel heard. Ask open-ended questions such as: 
    •  “How did that make you feel?” 
    • “Tell me more about…” 
    • “What do you think about that?”
  • We often fear we will pry too much. If this fear comes up for you then you can always ask the person what they need. Trust them to tell you what they need. Some communication you can try are: 
    • “Do you feel comfortable with me asking more questions?”
    • “I’d like to understand more if that feels comfortable for you.” 
    • “Would you like to talk more about it?” 
  • Validate emotions. Some language you can use: 
    •  “It’s understandable you feel…” 
    • “I can see why you feel that way when…”
  • Use active listening and reflective responses. Paraphrase what the other person is saying to convey listening and understanding. Some examples:  
    • “I’m hearing that…” 
    • “It sounds like…is that right?”
  • Provide validating responses that attune to the person’s strength and resilience. Some language you can try:  
    • “You’re strong for facing this…” 
    • “I can tell how much effort you’re putting into…” 
    • “You’re very thoughtful for….”
  • Let the other person guide the conversation and focus on listening and asking questions rather than talking.
  • Keep the conversation focused on them. It is natural for us to bring up our own experiences that may be similar to what the other person is going through. Avoid the urge to share personal experiences because it will shift the focus away from them and can make them feel as though they aren’t being heard.

 

After we respond empathetically and listen to the other person, allowing them to fully express themselves, you can then ask if they are looking for advice. If the person is open to receiving the advice it will be much more powerful than if you imposed it on them from the start. Offer advice after we have provided a safe space for the other person to feel understood is much more powerful. Choosing empathy over advice will feel uncomfortable at first. It may leave you feeling helpless and overwhelmed by uncomfortable emotions. However, like anything, with practice, we get better at offering support in this way. Empathy and validation lead to deep connection, so don’t discount the profound impact this type of support can have!

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