As a counsellor, I am trained to use what we call an “empathic response.” Many people think that counsellors or therapists give advice, but first and foremost what we do is listen and respond with empathy. We may ask probing questions to help our client flesh out a story or an issue, but ultimately we realize that they are the expert on their own life. We rarely give direct advice to clients, choosing instead to be a listener and a guide, or a sounding board for ideas. When a client is confused or seems to be off-course, we may issue a challenge which is designed to encourage reflection and, perhaps, problem-solving. Listening, acknowledging and affirming of emotions comes first, though.
Why am I writing this description of what a counsellor does? I’ve been reflecting even more than usual lately on how we emotionally support people who have undergone trauma. As someone who is in the throes of invasive, scary and body modifying cancer surgery and treatments, I often feel shut down by the following statements:
Be Positive. Stay Positive. Think Positive. Use your good attitude. Smile.These are the things we say to people who are going through difficult life events in our culture.
Now, I’m sure I’m guilty of saying these things in social contexts before. In my professional role I wouldn’t say, “Well, you just have to be positive,” to someone who is wracked with sadness or anger or grief. But I’ve probably said something like this to acquaintances in the grocery store or at the theatre when they confide that they are dealing with a difficult problem.
What do people feel when we do this to them? They feel isolated and alone.
We have ignored their emotions. We have given the message that the only acceptable emotion is happiness, and put forth the idea that one must bottle up other emotions and push them inside. We have said, “Don’t share these emotions with me. They are disturbing.”
What would be a better response? How can we support others emotionally?
“It sounds like a really tough time for you,” “You can tell me about your experience,” “This is so difficult for you,” “I’m really sorry to hear this. “
Respond with empathy, make eye contact, and just listen. Offer support. That’s it, no platitudes required. Usually the individual we are talking with will feel lighter after this encounter, and us listeners will feel a sense of efficacy.
Pretending everything is fine when it isn’t drives isolation. Recognition of and sharing of emotion is what creates human connection. And human connection is a catalyst for happiness, so it’s a win-win, really!