teaching people to show more empathy in a conversation?
August 3, 2019 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Is there a fairly clear but kind, gentle, not upset or sarcastic way to tell someone that when you tell them that something shitty happened to you, you would like them to say something empathetic? Or further, that that's a wise thing to do in general? The people in question are generally friends or dates, not family or serious partners, and have often been younger than me and perhaps not raised to talk about feelings. Sometimes I've just quietly written them off, or ignored it, but I think saying something once or twice may be a better choice.
posted by needs more cowbell to Human Relations (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (I'm not talking about things on the order of a death, but small things like not having had a good day, or someone being shitty to me, that I have clearly described as sad/bad/frustrating/etc. I don't think I'm particularly a complainer and I don't need a giant response but I've had younger friends or dates who basically don't even make a sympathetic noise or the text equivalent of one.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:45 PM on August 3, 2019

It can be helpful to set up expectations before you share things. "Hey, I've had a shitty day, can you just make sympathetic noises at me while I rant for a minute?" or "OMG, funky day, are you ok with active listening while I process? I don't need advice," or something similar. It's not going to work with everyone, but setting expectations early can help.
posted by lazuli at 8:52 PM on August 3, 2019 [16 favorites]

Response by poster: I know I'm not supposed to back-and-forth but just to clarify - these have been minor things that arise in normal conversation, or as a result of a question one of these folks asks, rather than a situation that I set up where I need to vent.

That sort of setting expectations totally makes sense in that scenario and/but these are people I would not choose as someone to vent to or process with.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:59 PM on August 3, 2019

Even in those situations of your looking for an expression you can ask for it. Sometimes people achieve this though "can you believe it? " type statements or"Don't you hate it to? " or "can you relate? " instead of directly asking.

Some people are just bad at this though.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:04 PM on August 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think it would be kind of strange or awkward to ask this of a date, unless it's someone that you're beginning a relationship with. I mean, this is a request for emotional support - it's a completely reasonable one, but it makes more sense to expect that support from someone you already have an emotional connection with.

It would be completely normal to ask a friend.

Don't assume that they are just careless or bad at feelings. People have different needs. If I complain about having a shitty day, it's nice to have that acknowledged, but it usually doesn't matter that much and often I would prefer to just complain and be done, instead of having to respond to those empathetic responses. I really resent this being painted as the wrong way to behave or to relate to people. It's just different.

The true "test" is how they respond when you tell them what you need. And if they're your friends, you can tell them! I would start with what lazulisong suggests: Tell them what would help you beforehand, so they know. You can keep it casual, and not make a big deal out of it, while still being explicit.

Don't approach it as "you've disappointed me before, here's what I really need." Before, they didn't know. Approach it as telling them what you need in the moment, right now. If they don't respond to that, then it might be time to have a discussion with them, depending on how serious the friendship is, how important this is to you, etc.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:06 PM on August 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

I don't quite follow the "these are people I would not choose as someone to vent or process with" but also them being someone you're venting to and want sympathy from. That seems a direct contradiction? But assuming these are just quick exchanges, I was about to type what Alexia did where you lead them into commiseration.

Person: How's it going?
You: Ugh, not a great day. My car got a flat tire and I didn't sleep the best, sucks yeah?

Where you are asking a question that the affirmative is them expressing sympathy. Now the "normal" society conditioned response in America to most sharing of negative things when you don't really know someone is polite affirmation. Many people shy away from negative things as they scare them.

If this is someone you will continue to interact with, feel free to drop a line about just wanting some encouragement or verbal hug. That's fine. Often people are FIXERS when we just want someone to listen.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:10 PM on August 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

I can't think of a way that this won't come across as a correction. Maybe your modeling will have a positive influence in the long run. But I'll be reading other replies...
posted by salvia at 10:23 PM on August 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh what about this:

You: "Oh man what a morning, my car broke down and while I was calling the tow truck, my cell phone died so I had to walk two miles! In heels!"
Them: "My sister's car broke down last month. She--"
You: "Hold up, hold up, before you tell me that story can we just take a second to say, oh my God, my morning suuuuuuuucked. I'm still so worked up about it!"
Them: "Your morning really did suck. It totally did."
You: "Totally, thank you! Okay, I'm over it and want to hear: what happened to your sister?"
posted by salvia at 10:29 PM on August 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

My day sucked, I really need a little love/support right now...
posted by Jubey at 2:59 AM on August 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Active listening is a skill that isn't universal. Some people believe that you demonstrate care by not interrupting someone. I can't really think of a way to elicit active listening and empathetic responses in a casual relationship without it seeming awkward. Maybe playfully?

You: "So then the guy just totally cut in front of me in line!"
Them: ...
You: "And it was like, the worst line butt in the history of all like butts and I'm all in my feelings about it..." (hand to forehead as if you have the vapors)
posted by crunchy potato at 4:02 AM on August 4, 2019

Some people are just very bad at this or they feel awkward when you share negative news with them (especially people who are less close to you).

I think the most you can do is express your feelings and just let them respond or not. So rather than saying what happened that sucked, say how that made you feel. It might make it even easier if you give them something to just agree with you.

Instead of “My coworker totally stole my idea in front of our boss!”

Try following that with something like “It was just so obvious because we had a conversation about it two minutes ago. Who does that?? It just makes me feel I can’t trust them at all, you know?”

The “you know?” Gives them a chance to at minimum, agree with you (“omg totally, what a jerk!”).

But yeah some people are just not good at this kind of thing, which is probably why they haven’t become closer friends? And with this circle of friends it’s not really your job to teach them this. Maybe let that responsibility go too.
posted by like_neon at 5:26 AM on August 4, 2019

And with dates, I mean this is sort of the point of a date. If their responses to your comments are not satisfactory to you, it could be a sign of bad chemistry. Assessing this kind of thing is part of what dates are for so a bad response is just another data point, not an opportunity to teach them anything.
posted by like_neon at 5:30 AM on August 4, 2019 [7 favorites]

Seems to me that you first need to parse why those individuals are not acknowledging or being supportive. They aren't monoliths. Some of them will be not acknowledging because they are not able to pick up the nuance that you are distressed, let alone even parse the idea of providing comfort. Some of them will be letting you down because they have different expectations of how to react. They may come from families where no one modeled support to them, or gave them an idea of what they could say, or they may come from a background where people are strongly discouraged from ever venting and are saying nothing to avoid either embarrassing you or depressing you.

If these people are close enough to you to be dates or friends as opposed to being early prospective partners or acquaintances you know them well enough to open a discussion about this. Of course you definitely don't want to open a discussion around what response they think is appropriate or why immediately after you have made an attempt to vent and been rebuffed because as that will come off as an accusation and entitlement and they will run a mile.

There is a rule about venting to strangers and acquaintances about only venting about things that they obviously agree with and are also experiencing. "It's so hot today!" or "If she gets back with our paperwork before four PM I will be surprised." but not "Another mass shooting - of course it's someone from 8chan!" or "My mother died on Thursday and I feel so numb."

If they accept your conversational gambit to discuss an unhappy experience but move further on the subject to share the same issue - "I also lost a mother once..." without acknowledging you, the chances are they are notifying you that the do not feel close enough to you to feel that a unilateral commiseration role is appropriate. In that case what you could do is provide verbal sympathy for both of you after they share their version. "Man, even as an adult being an orphan is hard!"

Remember most people spend a LOT of time holding responsibility to help others at bay. In one morning before meeting you the average person may have not ceded their own right of way in traffic, given a dollar to one panhandler and ignored seven more, ignored two texts, six messages on TV and billboard advertising for different charities they would like to support, not allowed the guy who appeared near tears on the elevator to flood them and smiled through their boss venting for five minutes even though it creeps them out and they don't think it should be in their job description to put up with that, all before they meet you for coffee at ten AM. For many people repudiating those bids for support are reflexive because they get so many calls for their attention and support. They may even want to supply that support but know that it would be too hard on their mental health if they do.

There is also a subset of people, much smaller than the other repudiators who honestly feel that because their life is so hard they are being silenced if they are asked to give someone else a turn. They may not be venting at you, but they maybe stewing inside and may honestly feel that if someone says to them, "My broken arm makes it so difficult to do things..." that the fair an appropriate response is for them to scream, "My mother was so unsympathetic I had the worst childhood! I have PTSD and am never going to be happy! Your broken arm is nothing to my anxiety and depression!" However people like this usually just grunt, because they have been kicked out of class or fired for going on rants, or know they would be and have learned to just glower. You can often spot these people because when something asking for their sympathy comes up they will soon after give a short hate rant about some other possibly unrelated group they have been told they should sympathize with such as children or immigrants or gay people. Watch for this subset and do not under any circumstances vent at them because you will be gaining quiet simmering hostility if you do.

But for every other person that is close to you and to whom you vent but who fails to respond to it a way that is helpful and social you need to make it clear to them what you expect and how little you are expecting. it's really as simple as that. You say it lightly since you only want to vent briefly and it's not the prelude to a doom and gloom session of you dumping on them for half an hour. You definitely don't say it as an accusation. Salvia's script is absolutely right. The thing to emphasis is how little you want, how brief an acknowledgement is sufficient. People are not therapists and so many of them come from backgrounds and cultures where complaining is not acceptable that when they encounter someone who comes from a background and culture where it is acceptable they neither know how to respond, nor do they know if it is safe to respond, or if they will trigger a breakdown on your part. People who come from cultures where commiseration is a bonding activity can end up thinking that these other people are downright nasty. They're not. They just do it differently.

One thing you can do if you have to spend time with people who are not sympathetic and feel a strong need to get some caretaking behaviour is to displace your wanting verbal sympathy to requesting some other kind of support they can and do provide. On gaming boards, for example, when the denizens are sufficiently familiar with each other and close from running missions together one person can say, "Had a shitty day." and get the reply, "Sucks" which for terse prestige hungry male strangers is a lot of opening up and support! But before they get to that stage requests for information and requests for material goods lay the ground work. "Where do I find the recipe for fishing rod?" comes before "Why isn't it appearing in my menu yet?" comes before "Anyone know where I can find some decent clay?" comes before "Anyone want to trade me some decent q clay?"

All that has to take place in some way in the real world too before you know the person well enough for most of them to be comfortable showing support to your venting. And if you haven't replied to their requests for information, or if they haven't made any, they are under no obligation to tell you where the good q clay spot is, let alone trade with you or respond supportively when you grumble about something.

You know those horrible, relentlessly positive people? Most of them are like that because they have been badly burned by horrible relentlessly negative people, while a few are a relentlessly negative people themselves grimly holding down on expressing how they hate everyone, hate everything and know exactly what is wrong about everything.

Some other people have bonobo traits, so that if you show distress in a public place and it appears to be significant will come to your emotional rescue. These are the exception to the how-well-do-you-have-to-know-someone-before-you-vent expectation. But these people are few and far between and they often have enormous calls on their sympathy, so many of them end up avoiding running into people who will trigger their protective and empathetic response. This means that if you teared up in the coffee shop and your date was warm and gave you a hug, you actually may need to prove to him or her that you do not now feel that you can use them for an emotional dumping ground. From their point of view it is one thing to save a drowning person, but another to be expected to provide swimming lessons.

The main thing to keep in mind is that we go through lives making bids for connection and when someone does not respond the primary thing to understand is that they do not want that kind of a connection. So if someone doesn't respond positively you have to show them that it is safe and worth their while to respond positively. "Say something sympathetic and then it's your turn..." Then you have to say something slightly more sympathetic than what they said, so the next time you vent they will know that they are going to enjoy the exchange and not feel used.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:11 AM on August 4, 2019 [13 favorites]

you would like them to say something empathetic?

If you want this to not seem like a correction, it's often good just to do something quick and brief "Oh, sorry I don't need you to fix this, I was looking for more of am empathetic response" and then move on, sort of no matter what they do. If it's someone you're really close to, you can talk more about how you're feeling and what you're looking for.

It's challenging because a lot of people either do not have this level of emotional sensitivity (I often have friends who are "fixers" and they are really trying to help in every good way) or don't really want to be in a complicated back and forth about your feelings if they're not someone who you are close to.

With my partner, and I know you are not referring to a partner here, I will flat out day "Look, I need a little five minute GRAR here and then you can say 'aww honey' and then we can move on okay?" and that sets the tone. I think with some people, a lot of negative emoting, particularly in someone they don't know that well, is a red flaggish situation, and so giving the outlines "Just gonna talk for a few minutes about my commute and then let's have a great dinner" can be a way of setting expectations not just for what you'd like from someone else, but for what they can expect from you.
posted by jessamyn at 6:51 AM on August 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

I would agree with those who say you can alter your phrasing to elicit a reaction, but I'd go further and say no, you can't ask them to react a certain way. Maybe they're younger than you, but they are who they are, not who you want them to be, and you don't get to decide that their way of conversing is something wrong to be fixed--it's different than yours and not what you enjoy.

So yeah, you can nudge with rhetorical questions that might elicit what you want, but other than that, I would be done with someone who tried to explain to me how I'm supposed to react to something they said--and I would have been (and was) at the age of 18, as well.

(Note, this is not about someone explaining what they specifically need from me in the moment, but rather how one is supposed to react to things in general. "I need a little sympathy right now" is fine. "Expressing sympathy right now would be appropriate"--or any equivalent--is not.)
posted by gideonfrog at 7:56 AM on August 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'm with OnTheLastCastle in finding this question confusing and contradictory. Maybe you could give a concrete example where you tell us who the person is, what the situation is, and quote what you said, what they said, and the kind of thing you would have liked them to say?
posted by nirblegee at 7:36 PM on August 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

posted by quiet coyote at 9:22 PM on August 4, 2019

You could say
“Can I send you this cool video I found?”
and then send them a link to the great
The Power of Empathy.
posted by blueberry at 12:17 AM on August 5, 2019

INTJ here. I may be one of those emotionally obtuse people you reference. Some people don't feel they can spare the emotional bandwidth on a situation they can't do anything about . Maybe your situation comes across as a first world problem as opposed to the third world problem they may be internally ruminating about and which they wouldn't dream of mentioning to you. Someone once interrupted my internal dialogue to exclaim, "I've tried everything and just can't find a product to make my stainless steel sink shine!"

So maybe don't go looking for empathy from someone who doesn't spontaneously hand it out. If you have to ask for it, it wouldn't be real anyway.
posted by Gino on the Meta at 10:57 AM on August 5, 2019

It is absolutely worth asking for what you want!

The main options are really clear here, and the details are less relevant than it might seem, and you can pick your preferred action based on the particular circumstance:

1) Ask for what you need/want ahead of time
2) Ask for what you need/want after the other party misses the opportunity to provide it unprompted
3) Don't ask for what you need/want and feel unhappy at not getting it
4) Don't ask for what you need/want and choose to not be unhappy at getting it

Anything you want/need is worth asking for.
posted by dancing leaves at 1:54 PM on August 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

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