• Woman with hair waving in the wind.

    Why you can keep the good advice.

    Empathy, not sympathy. Even when it is given with good intentions, advice is often worthless. Learn how to help others properly – and yourself at the same time.

    Text: Rebecca Randak

Sometimes only listening helps.

Imagine the following situation: A close female friend is having a hard time. Perhaps she is ill or simply has relationship problems. What would you do? Try to cheer her up with comforting words? Conjure up a few tips on how she can change her complicated situation?

Woman in front of a natural landscape.

Talking as a response to your own helplessness.

It may be well-meant, but good advice shouldn’t always be the first port of call. If a person close to you is suffering, it’s natural that you want to help them and do something to ease their pain. And because this is not always easy to do, you soon feel helpless in such situations. What starts out as a few tips suddenly turns into full-blown lectures: you tell of this one acquaintance who was cured of this very same illness by a “miracle worker” doctor in the Black Forest, you relate your own experiences of being self-employed, or are reminded of a mutual friend who, after a bad break-up, has found the love of her life and is now strolling around with baby bump and buggy.

Turn the situation around.

First the good news: The tips you give testify to a genuine interest in the well-being of the person concerned. Now the bad news: They don’t help – or at least they don’t most of the time. Turn the whole thing around and think of a situation where you were having a hard time. How often did any advice which you did not ask for make you feel better? Hardly ever, probably.

Woman lifts hands to heart.
Woman looks at sky.

Compassion is not governed by thought.

Advice, when given, may have undertones. A piece of advice implies that person A believes that they have the solution to person B’s problem. This automatically creates a hierarchical relationship, even if the advice has been offered caringly and without moralising. When you ask for advice yourself, you accept your temporary inferiority because you assume that the other person’s knowledge is going to help you. If that’s not the case, the advice will feel rather awkward and akin to a blow. And that’s the last thing we want.

  • Cut-off female face.

Solutions serve only us.

Behavioural researcher and author of many guidebooks on psychology, Brené Brown, puts well-meaning advice down to a possible lack of empathy. To respond empathetically, in other words, to feel with a person, means putting yourself in the other person’s position, showing an understanding of the situation and enduring the pain together with the person. By contrast, sympathy means feeling the other person’s pain as if it were your own.

Sympathy is the reason for our propensity to give well-meaning advice: our brain is programmed to avoid pain and discomfort, be it our own or that of others. So it’s no real surprise that we want to find solutions to both our own distress and that of others as quickly as possible.

Woman in wind.

On the path to self-knowledge.

The question now is: what can we do to console an unhappy girlfriend? It’s easier than you might think. Listen to her and say something like: “I understand how unhappy you are and I genuinely don’t know what to say. But I’m here if you need me.” Let your friend talk, don’t evaluate or judge her feelings and, above all, refrain from giving your own opinion. Your friend will feel lifted and understood – a frame of mind that will make it easier for her to endure the pain and find her own solutions.

Learning empathy.

The research findings of Brené Brown can be found on YouTube in a short video which illustrates very well the issue of “empathy versus good advice”. Take it to heart and remember it the next time someone in your circle of friends needs your support. You will soon see how much more pleasant and above all much more expedient it is to accompany others silently on their path to self-knowledge than to bombard them with advice. You too will feel better instead of drowning in pity.

Hands in water.