How to Know When to Provide Empathy or Advice and Why It Matters

The other day a friend emailed me and asked if I could spare some time to talk to him as he was in a tough situation.

I wrote back, “I would love to speak with you. Can you tell me if you’d prefer my empathy or if you want me to offer solutions to your problem or both?”

When he wrote back he said, “That’s a really great question, thank you for asking me. I would like empathy and no solutions to my problem. I’d really just like to talk out my problems with someone who will be compassionate to my situation. I need to vent.”

I replied back, “Done. Call when ready.”

Why did I ask him that question before we got on the phone?

Because so many times when friends call me and want to talk about problems they are having in life, I go into problem solving mode. I figure if they are telling me about their problems they must want my help solving them.

But I discovered that sometimes when I gave advice, my friends would say, “No, just listen.” And I had an awakening where I realized that sometimes people just want empathy, and I had to ask myself if I would be okay listening to someone’s problems and NOT offering advice. I decided that I was.

So now I always ask the question in advance. “Do you want empathy or do you want me to help you work through the problem and offer solutions?”

Since I’ve started asking the question, these conversations have gone much more smoothly, and are vastly more satisfying for both of us.

When I’m giving empathy, I listen and don’t interrupt them while they speak. When there is a pause in their narrative, I say “uh huh” and at the end I might say “That sounds really hard.” I also repeat back to them what I’ve heard them say so they know I fully understand their plight. That part is so important. You’re not just listening, you’re showing you understand and fully grasp the nature of their situation.

Often at the end of an empathy call, my friends will sigh deeply and say, “Thank you for listening. That was really helpful.” Even though I’ve provided no solutions at all, my friends feel supported.

When I’m doing a problem solving call, I let my friend fully express their situation and then together we go through options. I don’t tell them what I would do in their situation. We go from where THEY are, not where I would be if I was in that situation. Together we find solutions that work for them, their desires, and their current resources.

At the end of those calls my friends will often say, “Thank you, I’ve got a great to do list. I feel empowered and motivated.”

And sometimes my friends want both. When they want both empathy and problem solving, we do the empathy part first. They have to get it all out. They have to release that energy before they can get to a place where they are ready to hear solutions. We have to go from “I’m overwhelmed” to “I’m ready to take action.”

Do you have friends who just want you to listen to their problems and offer no solutions? Honor that request if you can. See what happens when you offer empathy and understanding. Sometimes that’s all a person needs.

And if they want your help solving a problem, offer advice.

But find out first what they want. It will make a world of difference in your communication with your friends, and reduce a great deal of frustration between you.

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