A young woman is talking to her friend. She tells her that “I was coming out of McDonald’s when I ran into an old boyfriend. You know, I just got engaged, but when I looked into his eyes, I felt lost. I’m going to get married in a couple months, I don’t know what to do. What do you think?” Her friend says, “I don’t like McDonald’s!” As an old rock and roll album was titled, “Oops, wrong planet.”

Empathy can be the best medicine. But we have to understand what it is and how to be there empathically for those in need. When a friend or loved one is down or in pain, we try to let them know that we understand how they feel. Whether they are right, or especially if they are wrong, we are there for them. Not to offer corrections or negate their experience or to point out how they’re in error. Being empathic does not mean offering advice unless it is solicited. “Well, maybe you should…” This is not empathy. Validating is! Telling one simply how they’re feeling and that you understand.

Done from the heart, it builds trust, heals a hurting soul, and subtlety offers help and support. It says that you care whether they’re right or wrong. It involves less of the pronoun “I” and more about the concern of “you.” As in many conversations, when you find yourself taking an intense deep breath, wait before you speak. The respiration may mean you’re headed for the wrong place. Think about what the speaker is trying to convey to you and how they’re feeling. Meanwhile, if you have a few minutes, I’m here to listen!

Dr. Mark. W. Turner