How do you respond when people you care about tell you they’re going through something difficult?
Do these responses sound familiar?
“Hey, it’s okay. Cheer up.”
“It’s only worth 10%, you’ll be fine.”
“He’s not that good for you anyway—just, like, move on.”
Sometimes, despite our best attempts to provide comforting words, what we say can make the person feel worse instead. The result: a slump, a sniffle, a shoulder sag. We ask ourselves, “Did I say something...wrong?”
The thing is: maybe things aren’t okay, and won’t be for a long while. Maybe it’s not about the mark, but the heavy toll on self-worth. Maybe it’s easier to think about an ex than to forget.
To help others feel heard and less alone, we can choose words that validate what they are experiencing, rather than gloss over their feelings. That’s when knowing the difference between sympathetic and empathetic responses can help.
Differentiating between sympathy and empathy
The Oxford English Dictionary defines sympathy as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune” and empathy as the “ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
I used to think that these terms were interchangeable, until I was introduced, in my English lecture last year, to this video on empathy, which drove home the distinction—in less than 3 minutes.
As researcher Brené Brown points out, whereas “empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.” Empathy means feeling with others and taking their perspective—without, as sympathy tends to do—“silver lining” the problem.
Along with watching Brown’s video, I read articles related to empathy for class (like this one)—and learned to change the way I engage in conversations.
Although I’m far from being an expert, I see the value of what I learned (and am still learning) about sympathy and empathy, about what to say—and not say—to a friend who’s hurting.
5 types of sympathetic responses to avoid
Here’s what to avoid saying when someone has shared something difficult with you.
“Um. RIP. That, like, sucks. Oh yeah, did you watch the Oscars last night?”
When someone shares something painful, it’s natural to feel uncomfortable and want to change the topic.
But this type of response can actually make the other person feel hurt and think that you don't really care.
“At least you got 51%. And hey, I heard someone got, like, 20%. You did so well in comparison!”
Maybe your instinct is to find the silver lining in a challenging circumstance or to compare your friend’s situation with those of people in a worse spot.
However, by starting statements with “at least” or comparing to other people's circumstances, it can actually make the individuals you're comforting feel like they have no right to feel the way they do.
“Calm down, dude. You’re overthinking it.”
When other people share something that you feel isn’t “a big deal,” you may automatically think that they are brooding over things that aren’t worth their time and attempt to give them perspective.
However well-intentioned, such a response can end up sounding dismissive, as though you don’t care about what the other person is experiencing.
4. Directional questioning
“You’re okay, right? I mean, it’s been a month...are you feeling better now?”
Maybe you tend to ask questions like the above because you’re hoping that what the person is going through has ended.
Although these questions can sound innocuous, they can make the person feel like he or she is supposed to be okay now because “enough” time has passed...when this may not be true.
5. Dishing out (unwanted) advice or anecdotes
“Here’s what I would do.”
It’s tempting to give advice, especially when you feel there’s a practical solution that would resolve your friend’s issue.
But sometimes people just want you to listen, or they aren’t ready to take action. Avoid making judgments and giving advice on what the other person should or should not do—avoid setting yourself as the standard.
“I mean, she didn’t pass the course...but that doesn’t mean you won’t. So don’t worry, you’ll be totally fine.”
Giving stories with negative outcomes isn’t that helpful when comforting others. Despite your advice to “not worry,” they may feel that they themselves can’t succeed, either.
5 types of empathetic responses you can try
In Brown’s words, “Rarely can a response make something better; what makes something better is connection.” To create that connection, actions can often speak louder than words. A hug, a shared meal, an offer to drive a friend to his or her appointment.
But words, too, can be helpful, when they are spoken with thoughtfulness. Here are some supportive ways to respond to people who share something personal and difficult with you.
1. Calling out their courage
“Thank you for trusting me with this. It means a lot to me.”
Acknowledge their courage in being vulnerable. Share your appreciation that they chose to confide in you and let them know that you’ll keep what they shared in complete confidence.
“From what I’m hearing, you are feeling X. Is that right?”
During the conversation, show that you are listening by asking questions that focus on how they are feeling. In the words of Studs Terkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian, “Don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer.”
By reiterating the reasons for why they are feeling the way they do, you can ensure that you understand the situation correctly, and you’re letting them know that their experiences are heard.
3. Character boosting
“This is a difficult situation and I think you’ve shown a lot of courage and strength in how you’re handling things.”
Point out the strengths in their character, which can help them understand that they have the power to overcome what they are going through—without minimalizing their experience.
4. Conveying that you care
“I’m here for you. What do you think I could do to help you feel better?”
Reassure them that you will be there for them and that you want to help—and then show up when you say you will.
“You know yourself best, what do you think would be most helpful to you right now?”
Helping them find solutions by asking what they would like you to do is not the same as you giving advice. Remember to treat others the way they want to be treated.
5. Checking in
“How are you feeling today?”
Be sure to follow up with them a few days later. Unlike the type of questioning that conveys expectations of how they should feel, follow up with open-ended questions that instead allow them to share.
Stay curious and attentive
We often practise empathy without realizing it. Reading a book, watching a movie, sitting in front of a play—we relate to and invest in the characters, even if their lives are and will always be fictional and imagined.
Empathy, after all, means seeing something from another's perspective—understanding how and why a person thinks and feels a certain way.
Steven Universe, dubbed on NPR as America’s most empathetic cartoon, has a character who says: “Who cares about how I feel? How you feel is bound to be much more interesting.”
In a similar way, be curious and attentive towards how others around you are feeling—and when a friend tells you something difficult, choose empathetic responses to show that you genuinely care and that you’re there to listen.
Remember that words have the power to create change, to foster connection, to help others overcome challenges and feel less alone in whatever they’re facing.
If you are concerned for a friend's wellbeing and feel they require more support than you can provide, visit the Help a friend page for resources.