9 Ways to Be an Empathetic Listener

Feeling better is all about talking it out. And for that, we need good listeners.

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1. Do: Show Up

The number one rule is to be there. Show up in person, if you can, whether or not you think you can help. Sometimes your friend won't want to talk, or you won't not know what to say, or you might wonder if they just want to be alone. (You might want to go and be alone!) But being there for someone is a powerful form of support: even if you're just eating pizza and watching bad TV together, your being there communicates that you care much more than any words can.

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2. Don't: Think a Text is Enough

A phone call is the next best thing to showing up in person (and may be the only option if you're far away), but most of the time, texts are not the best medium for empathy. A text saying "Let me know if I can do anything!" is a way of not showing up and closing the conversation. On the other hand, texts during the day to let your friend know you're thinking of them, alongside other support, can be great reminders that they're not alone.

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3. Do: Put Yourself in Their Shoes

Empathy by definition is sharing and experiencing another person's emotions, but it's not always easy to do, especially if you haven't experienced something similar (or you're just busy and distracted). The exercise of imagining yourself in their shoes is an oldie but goodie: make a conscious effort to do this to get a better sense of how they might be feeling. Real connection is about going to that place with them, as hard as it might be!

4. Don't: Be a Fixer

Avoid the impulse to fix the problem and start firing off solutions. If your friend asks for your advice, that's one thing, but most of the time people need to express their feelings: they don't necessarily want or need you to fix it. And anyway, although you're pretty awesome, you don't have all the answers! Offering solutions may inadvertently send the message that your friend isn't capable of solving the problem. Either way, what's important is your friend's experience of the problem, so try to keep the focus on that. They'll figure out the solution when they're ready.

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5. Do: Feel Comfortable With Silence

You don't have to fill the pauses. Sometimes people need a little more time to express things that are difficult, so not filling up the airwaves can give them the opening they need. It might feel awkward—we're not used to sitting with someone silently—so consider a mindfulness practice to stay openhearted and focused. Observe your breath!

6. Don't: Start Telling Stories

It's tempting to share stories of similar situations that you or people you know have been in. We often exchange stories in everyday conversation—it's natural to think of these (and we also like to think of ourselves, just in general). But when your friend comes to you in a moment of pain, you want to keep the focus on them. Your experience may be very different, too, so you don't want to assume you know what they're feeling. Give them the chance to tell you: that's how they're going to lighten their load.

7. Do: Stay With the Feelings

If a friend's feeling really low, it's better to be compassionate with where they're at rather than to try to deny their pain and cheer them up. A simple "I know this is rough—do you want to talk about it?" will be much more comforting and healing (and in the end, more uplifting) than "It's all gonna work out—don't worry so much. Let's go get a drink!" We tend to get a little uncomfortable around difficult emotions, so we try to make them go away. But the only way out of them is through them, friends.

8. Don't: Say "At Least"

This is a very specific form of not staying with feelings, but it feels so good to say! The intent is good: you want to point out how awesome your friend is. But it shuts down what they're feeling. The research professor Brené Brown, who specializes in empathy, calls it "silverlining." Your friend is upset about breaking up with her boyfriend, and you respond, "At least you look amazing in those jeans." Their cat just died: "At least you still have your gerbil." They're despairing about the election: "At least the City Council remained Democratic." Don't silverline! Just acknowledge that what sucks, sucks: it's far more helpful.

9. Do: Stay Connected

If you can't keep all these tips in your head, don't fret! Just remember this one: Stay connected. You might say the right thing, or not, or show up at an awkward time—whatever, don't worry about it. Just don't ghost when things get rough! Stay in touch with your friend and keep the lines of communication (and feelings!) open. It matters a lot more than coming up with brilliant solutions or the perfectly empathetic thing to say. As Brené Brown puts it, "Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection." Now's a good time for us all to start practicing, don't you think

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