Of course you accept your mate’s feelings, you may think, as you recall all the hours you spend listening to their emotional traumas about their significant other, or lack thereof, or their mother or their boss or their kids or their diet…
You do what all good friends do. You listen. But really good friends listen without imposing their own agenda.
They have the ability to put their immediate thoughts and reactions on hold. They are able to allow their friend to occupy the emotional space they are in without rushing in to change it or to put their own stamp on it.
Think about those occasions on which a friend’s response to what you say leaves you feeling a bit unsettled and dissatisfied, although they are being supportive and generous with their time and attention.
It’s likely that your discomfort stems from their refusal or inability to recognise and accept the emotion which accompanies your words.
You say, ‘I’ve been let go at work.’ You feel humiliated and a failure.
Your friend says, ‘Never mind! You were fed up with that job anyhow.’
You say, ‘Alex wants me to move in.’ You are delighted with this step towards consolidating your relationship, and at the same time, nervous about making such a big change.
Your friend says, ‘Why not leave things as they are?’ or ‘Great news! When should I buy a hat/book the stag do?’
You say, ‘I think Marc is being bullied at school.’ You feel angry and protective.
Your friend says, ‘Don’t worry. I’m sure he can look after himself.’
Sometimes we don’t realise that we are responding inappropriately because, after all, we have our friend’s best interests at heart. But we are actually letting our own feelings take over.
Our inner selves kick in with our desire to make things right or to be a comforter or to have a laugh or to take control or to give advice. When we move into our familiar role too quickly, it’s as if we are we abandoning our friend to the weight of their feelings and refusing to share the burden.
Here’s a three-step plan to help you give truly supportive, empathetic responses:
Reflect your friend’s emotional state
This means paying attention to not only the words that are spoken, but the tone and the body language as well.
Be aware of the speed and pitch at which someone speaks. Do they sound intense? Over-casual?
Notice their hand gestures. Are they expansive? Nervy? Tense?
Look at their facial expression. Is there a grimace? A genuine smile? A forced smile? A frown?
Don’t forget head gestures. Do they nod emphatically? Shake their head?
Check what kind of eye contact accompanies their words. Do they seem evasive? Elated?Perhaps there are tears in their eyes.
Take a minute to assimilate your impression. Then give a response which is in keeping with the messages your friend is communicating. Match the signals they are sending.
At this point, you don’t even have to speak — in fact, it is often better if you don’t, so that they know you are ready to listen. You could:
- shake your head in commiseration
- smile delightedly
- punch the air
- look surprised/amazed
- wrinkle your forehead
Single words or expressions you might use include:
- Oh no
- Oh dear
Find out what they are feeling
Yes, you might be delighted that your mate has finally seen the light and dumped that person who was so bad for them. You might feel impatient with their inability to stand up to a demanding family member. You could feel their health problem is nothing to worry about. Maybe you think their plan to move house is a terrible idea.
You are entitled to all these thoughts but, as a good friend, for the moment, keep them to yourself. You need to check the accuracy of your first impressions, and tune in to your friend’s state of mind. Try phrases like:
- You seem worried/confused/really pleased/fed up
- What do you feel about…?
- How does that seem to you?
- You’re over the moon!
- How did that make you feel?
- Any thoughts?
- What’s your thinking on this?
- Where do you feel like going with this?
Validate their feelings
Now that you are getting the picture, the final step here is to validate your pal’s state of mind. You need to let them know that you understand how they are feeling.
Feed back your impressions in a way that leaves room for them to expand or to tell you if you’ve got it wrong:
- What a frustrating situation for you
- I can see what a difficult decision this is
- No wonder you’re relieved!
- That’s a very enticing prospect
- That’s very sad for you
- How worrying
- You must be so pleased/disappointed/angry/annoyed/proud
- Well done!
- What a fantastic achievement!
It’s hard not to rush in with your own thoughts and reactions. But by taking a little time to identify and acknowledge what is going on with the other person, you strengthen the bond between you and increase understanding.
There may be plenty more to say about the subject under discussion but showing empathy in this way is one of the greatest gifts of friendship. If you have friends in your life who treat you with empathetic attention, well, lucky you! Don’t forget to return the favour!