Communicating effectively and compassionately with friends and family is a key component of maintaining healthy relationships. During challenging times, it can be especially difficult to find the right words to provide support. Avoiding judgement of others and being an active listener are big steps in creating caring conversations.
When we’re faced with emotionally difficult conversations, it can be easy to disconnect from the current moment and focus on what we plan to say next.
Make an effort to put phones and distracting thoughts away and give your undivided attention to the person you’re speaking with. You can affirm that you’re listening intently by giving body language signs like eye contact and occasional nods. Take in what the individual is saying, and don’t be afraid to sit with it for a moment once they’re done speaking. Asking simple open-ended questions is one way of showing that you’re tuning in.
If someone says: “I can’t believe what just happened in class!”
Not-so-compassionate response: “I had a stressful day too.”
Compassionate response: “Tell me about what happened."
Once you know what’s going on, it’s okay to not have the answers or to not know how to respond at first. In fact, it's best not to try and fix the problem. Most of the time others have their own solutions and just want an empathetic ear.
Judgmental conversations often involve criticism of another person or making conclusions about someone that aren’t based in fact. Often, judgment can elicit a negative response and cause a conversation to turn sour. Here’s an example of a non-compassionate conversation that includes judgment:
If someone says: “I’m so anxious all the time, I can’t focus on homework.”
Not-so-compassionate response: “You procrastinate all the time-no wonder you can't focus.”
Compassionate response: “That sounds really normal given what we’ve all been living through. How have you been thinking about dealing with your anxiety?”
The first response makes a negatively-charged judgment about the speaker’s experience of anxiety. Instead, you can affirm their emotions and ask an open-ended question to learn more about their experience.
When someone shares a challenge they’re going through, some individuals might feel an urge to provide advice or ways of fixing the problem. Providing solutions without being asked does not show compassion or understanding. Sometimes, people just want someone to listen and affirm the emotions they’re experiencing.
If someone says: “I'm worried my parents won't be able to help with tuition, My mom lost her job."
Not-so-compassionate response: “Maybe you should find another work-study job."
Compassionate response: “I’m really sorry to hear that. That must be really hard on you and your family.”
The compassionate response validates the challenges the other person is experiencing and doesn’t try to fix the problem.
Another way we sometimes fix is to try to solve the problem or behavior change by giving unsolicited advice. A more compassionate option is to:
1. Ask what the student knows about making this type of change.
2. If you have other ideas, ask permission to share them.
3. Offer 3-5 options that other students have used successfully.
4. Ask what they think of the options both of you have discussed.
Here's an example:
Student: My stress levels are going through the roof! I've got way too much going on and am heading into a lot of group projects and papers.
You: What do you know about how others reduce stress in their lives?
Student: I've heard of friends getting prescriptions for medications that help.
You: Prescriptions are one way that may help. Would it be OK if I shared a few other things students have done?
You: Thanks. One option other students have used is to take a look at their schedule and see what are the must haves and what are the optional activities--see what might be let go for a period of time. Another is to add a consistent mindfulness practice for a few minutes most days. Increasing physical activity--something you really enjoy--has also proved stress reducing. Some students find therapy useful as well.
You: I'm wondering what, if any, of the options we discussed might be useful to you?
Reflect what you think you hear
Reflecting what you believe an individual is saying is one way to show that you’re actively listening and working to understand what they’re going through.
If someone says: “My summer internship just got canceled.”
Not-so-compassionate response: “At least you get the summer off."
Compassionate response: “You’re worried you won’t get the experience you need to find a job later."
If someone says: “I’m just feeling really overwhelmed lately."
Not-so-compassionate response: “You and everyone else."
Compassionate response: “You’ve got a lot going on."
The compassionate response gave meaning to a simple statement and provided a basis for further conversation.
Affirm effort and strengths
When an individual is sharing something that they’re struggling with, keep an ear out for moments when you can recognize strengths and/or efforts that they’ve made. Acknowledging these strengths throughout your conversation is one compassionate way to show support for your friend or loved one.
If someone says: “I’ve had such a hard time paying attention in my club meetings lately. I only really tuned in once or twice this past month.”
Not-so-compassionate response: “I stopped attending my clubs meetings entirely; you’ll be fine.”
Compassionate response: “It sounds like there were a couple times where you were able to engage successfully. What was different about those times?”
Notice how rather than focusing on what went wrong, the compassionate response recognizes that there were a couple times when things went well for the first speaker. By recognizing these moments, you can affirm the strengths of the speaker and create a more compassionate conversation.