Leigh Ioffe shares the four cornerstones of empathy, tips how to employ it in times of crisis, and how to differentiate between empathy and sympathy.

“Hi everyone, Leigh here back to continue our series on mental health tips, suicide prevention, and dealing with this new and unprecedented crisis that we’re in. As you can see, I’m sitting outside in my backyard. It’s a beautiful sunny day here in Philadelphia. The first offering that I would like to provide you guys with today is, if you can get outside, please do. If you have the ability to leave your home, go for a walk. If you’re in quarantine, open windows, open doors, let the sunshine stream on your face through the window. I think it makes a big difference.
So today, what I wanted to talk to you guys about is empathy. I think it’s something that the world really needs right now. We all know someone who’s struggling with something, right? We could—I could list hundreds of stories of people who have lost family members, who have family members in the hospital, who’ve lost their jobs, who are juggling eight roles when they’re only used to having one. It’s a very intense time for people, and I think that right now, what we need most of all is to be empathetic towards one another.
Now, empathy is a buzzword that gets used a lot. The first thing I will tell you is empathy is not sympathy. It’s feeling bad for them, feeling sorry for them, and not connecting to their emotions. “Oh, poor you.” Sympathy is connecting with the person’s emotional level that they’re at, whether or not the issue that they’re dealing with is something that you relate to. You can probably find in your rolodex of memories something that happened to you that helps you relate to them. So, I wanted to share with you guys the four cornerstones of empathy, and they are:
1. Stay out of judgment when someone tells you something that they’re dealing with. Now is not the time to say, “Other people have it worse than you,” “It’s not that bad,” “It’s not such a big deal, get over it.” I think we do that as a means of protecting ourselves because it’s difficult to sit with someone else’s feelings, especially when we don’t know how to sit with our own. But if you can try employing a judgment-free zone, the same way that if you went to someone and needed their help, you would want them to help you from a judgment-free place. Then the same as offering it to someone else.
2. Recognize their emotions. You don’t have to know exactly where the person is coming from. Maybe you’ve never experienced this type of loss or disconnection, but you know what it feels like to feel pain. You’re a human being; you know what it feels like to feel pain. So, help them recognize their emotions. It sounds like you’re feeling frustrated. It sounds like you’re feeling anxious. As human beings, we all kind; we all have experienced those things, and we know what it feels like to feel those things. So, help them recognize their emotions.
3. Welcome their perspective. Put aside your own story of what it is that you’re feeling right now. Not a time to compare stories, not a time to say, “Oh, you’re dealing with this; let me tell you what I’m dealing with.” There is a time and place for that in conversations, but when you’re trying to help someone who’s struggling with something, it’s really important to kind of take a step back and give them the space they need. It makes it easier to hold space as well and also communicate what you hear. That’s number four. So, it’s important not to belittle what they’re feeling. An example could be something like if you’re having a conversation with someone and they tell you that their husband lost their job, and you could say, “At least you’re still working,” or “At least you have a savings account.” That’s not what they need to hear right now. And if roles were reversed, would you want to hear that? That’s what you should be asking yourself in the context of the conversation. What would I want to hear? And it’s not a time to offer advice or try to fix it. Again, I think we do that because we are uncomfortable, and we want to put a Band-Aid on it and walk away. Now is the time to—you know, by communicating what you hear, you say, “I hear that you’re saying that you’re really stressed out. I hear that you feel hopeless.” What you could also do is say something like, “I want to be there for you. Do you want me to just listen, or are you looking for advice?” Put the ball in their court.
The last thing to keep in mind is this takes practice. Maybe empathy is new to you, and this is the first time you’re hearing about it. Maybe this is something you’ve utilized a dozen times. Every time will be different, and you might not get it right every time, and that’s okay because we’re humans, and emotions are messy. This is really about showing up for people in an authentic way, and that means that you will make mistakes. It’s not about whether or not you’ll make a mistake because you might, and that happens to me all the time. It happens to everyone. It’s about what you do with
the mistake. You know, it’s about making sure that you’re not shutting them down or giving advice. If you find that that’s where you’re headed, you can own up, apologize, and try again, which is also a signal of empathy. You’re willing to get curious and show up and be there for the person, even if it’s uncomfortable and you make mistakes. So, that’s empathy, and I hope you guys find ways to use it with yourself, with your family, with your friends, and I can’t wait to hear what you guys think.”

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