Sympathy involves an attempt to understand someone’s problems from a different perspective than your own. Even if this is something you struggle with, you can support your friends and loved ones by learning to express sympathy. Follow these steps to do so, keeping your doubts or negative reactions to yourself, and you may find that you develop more genuine sympathetic feelings than you expected.
Give the other person a chance to talk about her emotions. Offer to listen to her talk about how she’s feeling, or how she’s trying to cope with her problems. You don’t need to have solutions at hand. Sometimes a sympathetic ear can be a great help on its own.
Use body language to express sympathy. Even while listening, you can show that you are paying attention and sympathizing with your body language. Make eye contact, and nod in understanding occasionally. Keep your body turned toward the person instead of to one side.
Don’t try to multitask, and avoid distractions during the conversation. Turn off your phone if you can, to avoid interruption.
Offer to talk about your own experiences. If you went through similar experiences, you may be able to help with practical advice or methods of coping. However, some people will not be ready to listen to other people’s experiences yet. Ask for permission first, for instance by saying “Would you like to hear how I coped after my car accident?”
Use appropriate physical contact. Physical contact can be comforting, but only if it is appropriate in the context of your relationship. If you are used to hugging the person who needs sympathy, do so. If either of you are not comfortable with that, briefly touch his arm or shoulder instead.
Offer to help out with everyday work. Someone going through a hard time in her life will likely appreciate some assistance in day-to-day tasks. Even if she seems to be handling these tasks well, the gesture demonstrates that you are there to help. Offer to drop off a home-cooked or restaurant take-out meal. Ask if you can help by picking her kids up from school, watering her garden, or assisting her in some other way.
Mention a specific date and time in your offer, rather than asking someone when she’s available. This gives her one less thing to decide or think about during a stressful time.
Refer to a shared religion. If you both belong to the same religion or share similar spiritual views, use that to bond with the person. Offer to pray for him or attend a religious ceremony with him.
Do not reference your religious views when expressing sympathy to someone who does not share them.
Mistakes to Avoid
Don’t claim to know or understand what someone is going through. Even if you went through a similar experience, realize that everyone copes in different ways. You may describe how you felt during that experience or suggest ideas that might help, but understand that the other person may be going through a different struggle.
Most importantly, never claim that your own problems are more serious. If you feel you need sympathy as well, find a friend who is not going through his own problems.
Don’t tell someone that everything will be okay. Acknowledge that the other person’s problems are real. Focus on listening to her problems and supporting her as she deals with them, not telling her that they’re not worth the attention.
Similarly, don’t say “at least it’s not as bad as it could be.” This can be interpreted both as a dismissal of the person’s problems, and as a reminder of additional problems in the person’s life.
Don’t pressure someone to use your solution. It’s reasonable to suggest a course of action that you think might help someone, but don’t stress the person out by bringing it up repeatedly. You might see it as an obvious, easy solution, but recognize that the other person might not agree. Try to bring up the possible solution no more frequently than once a week, and only if you have additional information. For example, “I know you don’t want to take pain medication, but I heard about a safer drug that might have fewer risks. Are you interested in the name so you can research it yourself?”
Don’t let jealousy or irritation show. You may think the other person’s problems are petty, or less serious than your own. You may even be jealous of someone whose problems seem so minor. This is not the correct time to bring this up, and you may never have a good opportunity to do so. It’s better to politely say goodbye and leave the room, rather than express your irritation.
Don’t act hard or uncaring. Some people think that “tough love” is an effective therapy technique, but this is the opposite of acting sympathetic. If someone is grieving or sad for a long period of time, he may be depressed. In this case, he should talk to a doctor or therapist; trying to get them to “toughen up” or “move on” is probably not helpful.
Don’t insult the person. This may seem obvious, but during stressful times, it can be easy to lose control of your emotions. If you find yourself arguing with the person, insulting her, or criticizing her behavior, leave the room and apologize once you’ve calmed down.
Do not even jokingly insult someone who needs sympathy. She may be feeling vulnerable and easily hurt.
Phrases to Use
Acknowledge the event or problem. Use these phrases to explain why you’re approaching the person in need of sympathy, if you heard about the problem from someone else. If he started the conversation, respond by acknowledging that the problem is serious.
I’m sorry to hear that.
I heard you were going through tough times.
Ask the person how they’re coping. Some people respond to stress or grief by becoming busier. They may not take the time off to think about their emotional state. Make eye contact and use a phrase that makes it clear you’re asking about their feelings, not their day to day life:
How are you feeling?
How are you coping with everything?
Express support. Make it clear that you are on her side. Mention friends and family that may also be able to support her, reminding her that she has other people to turn to:
You are in my thoughts.
I hope I can join your family and friends in helping.
I’ll pray for you. (only if you are both religious)
Let me know if there’s anything I can do.
Let the person know that emotions are appropriate. Some people have trouble expressing emotions, or feel that they are experiencing the “wrong” emotions. This is especially true of men in many cultures. Use these phrases to let them know it’s okay:
It’s okay to cry if you need to.
It’s normal to feel guilty. (or anger, or whichever emotion the other person just expressed)
If you’re not usually skilled at expressing emotions or sympathy, just making the attempt can show a loved one that you’re putting in extra effort for them.
How to Bury Your Burdens
How to Open up After Being Hurt
How to Get Rid of an Immature Reputation
How to Block Bad Thoughts
Sources and Citations
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