We all find ourselves in situations where we are confronted with someone, a family member, loved one, friend or co-worker, who is going through a difficult situation and they come to us to talk.

This can be somewhat awkward as the receiver and we often don’t know what to do so we will give advice, share our personal experiences, try to put together a plan of action, hug them, or sympathize with them. Many of us don’t really consider that all that person may really want is for you to just be there and hear them. Next time you find yourself in this situation, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

Often, we feel as though we need to act fast and try to fix the issue, if our friend begins to cry or express emotion, we say, “Don’t cry, everything is going to be okay.” But, why are we trying to stop them from expressing or feeling emotion? Sometimes, that’s actually all someone needs is to express and release the emotion of what they are going through.

Holding Space

We may hear this term from time to time without really understanding what it means. Essentially, holding space for someone just means to be there, to listen without intent to reply, to not try to “fix” anything, to let someone express themselves emotionally without making an attempt to make them feel better. You, as you are, just being there is enough, and this person will appreciate your simple presence during this time.

Of course if they are coming to you and asking for advice, or asking you to recall what you did in a similar scenario then go for it. But often, people tend to not know what they want when they come to you with their hardships, and simply being there is often enough.

Chinese Philosopher, Chuang-Tzu believed that true empathy requires listening with the whole being,

“The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.”

What Is Empathy?

We commonly think of empathy as being able to feel one’s emotions and have a more compassionate stance to where they are coming from. To take that a bit deeper, empathy occurs only when we have shed all preconceived ideas and judgments about the other party. As Philosopher Martin Buber says, “In spite of all similarities, every living situation has, like a newborn child, a new face, that has never been before and will never come again. It demands of you a reaction that cannot be prepared beforehand. It demands nothing of what is past. It demands presence, responsibility; it demands you.”

This can be easier said than done, “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and a difficult thing; it is almost a miracle, it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have the capacity do not possess it.”

Often, instead of offering empathy, we give advice, reassurance or explain our own experiences.

Here are a few perfect examples or how we typically act when someone is in a tough spot, from the book, Non-Violent Communication A Language Of Life by Marshall D. Rosenburg,

  • Advising: “I think you should…” “How come you didn’t…?”
  • One-upping: “That’s nothing; wait’ll you hear what happened to me.”
  • Educating: “This could turn into a very positive experience for you if you just…”
  • Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault; you did the best you could.”
  • Story-telling: “That reminds me of the time…”
  • Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.”
  • Sympathizing: “Oh you poor thing…”
  • Interrogating: “When did this begin?”
  • Explaining: “I would have called, but…”
  • Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”

And as Rosenburg states, “Believing we have to “fix” situations and make others better prevents us from being present.”

All of the above examples listed are ways that we are attempting to make it better, change, or fix the situation. Some of them might seem like they are coming from a very kind, open and compassionate place, but they are interrupting the opportunity for the other person to fully express themselves and their emotions.

Can You Give Empathy Without Receiving Empathy?

If we find ourselves having a particular difficult time trying to empathize with others and simply be there, this is a good sign that we ourselves are too starved for empathy to be able to offer it to others. This could mean that we are not listening to what’s really going on within our own selves, as former United Nations Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold once said, “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what’s happening outside.”

You cannot serve from an empty vessel, and if empathy is difficult for you, you may want to look within yourself.

Put This Into Practice

Next time someone comes to you to express a struggle, difficulty or hardship, simply listen for his or her observations, feelings, needs and requests. It helps to then reflect back by paraphrasing that you have understood what they are saying. By staying in this state of empathy, we allow others the opportunity to fully express themselves and their emotions without attempting to fix anything. Then we can carry on with the requests of that person in the form of any solutions or requests for relief.

Often, you will find that once you have given one the space to fully express themselves emotionally and verbally, that this alone will help them to feel much better, simply because they have been heard, recognized and understood.

Much Love

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