April 15, 2016

Empathetic Conversation: an Absolute Necessity

Do we always show as much sympathy as we suppose? How do our words truly come across? My friend, Carol Graham, recently wrote an excellent article about speaking truthfully and sympathetically.  She makes the valid point that we shouldn’t say something only to be polite.

Carol also notes that we should consider how our listener will react before we say something. For instance, we can’t say “Don’t worry. Be happy,” or “Keep your head up” to a traumatized individual. It will sound callous and superficial, probably even offensive.

Compassionate communication is always a challenge. It’s so easy to speak quickly and worry about the consequences (if we worry about them) later. Some personalities are particularly prone to this type of behavior: act now; ask questions later. Needless to say, such an attitude doesn’t promote healthy relationships. Here are some pitfalls we need to avoid:
  • Judgmental words
  • Empty (untruthful or superficial) conversation
  • Giving offense
  • Offering unsolicited advice (my personal pet peeve!)
  • Being unable to truly relate to what your listener is feeling (In this case, it would probably be better to say nothing.)

People who are Living With Trauma


She lost a son to cancer over a decade ago. That is something you never fully get over. However, those who haven’t lost a child can’t always relate to that. They seem to wonder why the wound is still fresh today. Jenny says she has simply stopped talking about her son for two reasons:
  • People do not know how to process such a huge loss. It’s the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.
  • It keeps the pain fresh for Jenny.


A friend had a recent, minor health crisis. It was traumatic, but it ended after five days. She said this to me: “I don’t know what it’s like to have an illness that has gone on forever. I’ve always had good health.”

Well, my friend is right.  If you don’t have severely limiting medical conditions, you absolutely cannot fully understand the continual struggles of those who do, such as me. It’s similar to being constantly, painfully hammered into a small hole—if we don’t control our thinking.


She’s a member of a conservative church that has high expectations for their members. However, her children choose not to follow many of the guidelines.  Some of her friends have no problem prompting their easy-going kids to follow guidance. For that reason, they don’t understand Sally’s situation

Sally’s kids are incredibly strong-minded. They choose to exercise their free will to make unwise decisions, and there’s nothing their mom can do about it. Many of her church leaders don’t understand that.


Her son has serious mental dysfunction due to a complication at birth. Recently, he made the choice to cut himself off from his family. He has also harassed, bullied, and threatened them in many ways.

In the beginning, Irene reached out to some friends and authority figures. They were full of advice, but little sympathy or empathy. Therefore, their recommendations were misguided and inappropriate. Irene couldn’t use anything they said. She has stopped sharing her story.

My Conclusion

Please, if you don’t have the right words, don’t say anything. You never know what inner battles people are facing, or how your words may affect them. Your conversation may seem to diminish their pain, even though that’s not your intention.

We don’t all have the same way of thinking. That’s why we can never assume that people understand the compassionate motivation behind our words.

The Bible shows that healthy communication can lift a person’s load: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”—Galatians 6:2 (NIV)

For more on this subject please view my book, Accept No Trash Talk: Overcoming the Odds

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How have you boosted someone with your words?

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