Remember a time you experienced a sudden, unexpected hardship in your life… Who was with you at the time – or who did you call on first? How did they respond – was it either helpful or harmful support you received from them? That’s your first resource for helping others in crisis: your own experience.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 says, “God is the Father of all compassion and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we may comfort others in any trouble with the same comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
Draw from your own experience – whether good or bad – so that you can offer support and encouragement that is truly helpful to your loved ones in crisis.
Your second resource would be empathy: What is this person feeling right now, and how can I comfort them in this difficult moment in their lives?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.
What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy? Well, sympathy is feeling sorry for someone – feeling pity for them and their situation. Empathy is feeling what the other person is feeling with them.
To explain it another way, sympathy is feeling another person’s circumstances from our own point-of-view. Empathy is trying to understand what a person is feeling from their own point-of-view.
Now, I’m not trying to offend anybody here; I’m just trying to give you a simple example to think about: have you ever known someone whose cat died? And maybe when they told you, you were like, “Aw man, I’m so sorry your cat died… maybe you could get a new cat…?” But in your head, you were like, “What’s the big deal? It was just a cat!”
Your response was genuine – but you were thinking about their issue from your own point-of-view. That’s called sympathy. That’s a sympathetic response. It’s genuine, but, it’s not always helpful.
What would the empathetic response look like? “Man, I’m so sorry your cat died… that really stinks… I bet he was a like a member of the family…”
With empathy, you don’t minimize their feelings. You don’t offer them an immediate solution to their feelings. Did you know that feelings can’t be solved? Feelings must be felt. That’s the only thing we can do with feelings.
Our feelings are terrible at leadership. Feelings are not good at helping us make life-altering decisions. Feelings have one job: to be felt. That’s it. And there’s nothing else productive we can do with our feelings except for feel them.
Trying to solve them doesn’t work. Trying to ignore them doesn’t work (not in the long run). Letting them lead us and run our lives doesn’t work. Feelings are to be felt, and there are healthy ways for every emotion we have to be felt.
Empathy is simply listening and trying to understand what another person is feeling from their own perspective. You enter into their feelings with them for a bit.
If you have trouble remembering what empathy is, just remember to say, “that really stinks…” And mean it!
That’s the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is viewing another person’s problem through my own point-of-view. It’s genuine – but, it’s self-centered: What would I be feeling if I were them? That’s not a bad question to ask yourself, but, it’s not always helpful to them.
Empathy is focused on the other person’s feelings – trying to understand what they are feeling about their problem, just acknowledging that it stinks to feel that way, and then – just sitting with them in it for awhile, while they experience their feelings.
One practical thing to remember here is that it’s not your responsibility to solve their problem in that moment. In fact, solutions aren’t always helpful right away – even good ones.
What matters most in that first instance of a crisis is this: “I see you, I hear you, I understand you, you matter to me, and I’m here with you.” That’s what’s most important immediately following a crisis.
So from the previous post, your first resource to draw from is your own experience: What helpful or harmful things did I receive from my loved ones when I experienced a crisis? The second resource you have at your disposal is your empathy: What is this person feeling right now, and how can I comfort them in this difficult moment? In the next post, we’ll talk about Equipment: what resources can I connect this person to that will help them take the next right step to deal with this crisis?