There's a local group on Facebook in my community. It's supposed to be a space where folks can share thoughts and services, ask questions and connect with community, etc. At first I thought this was a wonderful idea because it would bring people together.
Well, not quite.
It became obvious that folks were super receptive when it came to posting compliments and positive experiences. All good. But as soon as anyone posts that they are upset or disappointed or had a bad experience: holy mother of hell shit storm of judgment, criticism and deflection!
It was so bad that this whole separate set of the community felt compelled to form their own group called the 'Nice (insert name of community)'. Wha?
Recently I also tried posting a personal experience on social media that I had with 4 people, on 4 separate occasions, who happened to be of the same gender and age group. Worthy of note: I never stated that all people of this gender and age behaved in the same way. I just relayed what happened to me and once again major offence was taken by people who happened to fit that gender/age category.
It made me wonder if perhaps newscasters should be less specific so as not to offend anyone into thinking that they are talking about all people that fit those descriptions??
'In other news, persons of no particular height, age, gender, hair color or build entered a bank and robbed it today at an unspecified address. Best not state the address so that we don't offend that particular neighborhood for having crime.
If you see these persons please call police.'
THE 3 MAIN RESPONSE TYPES
What I've observed is that many responses to someone relaying negative feelings or experiences seem to fall into one of 3 categories:
THE DEFLECTORS: Short acknowledgement swiftly followed by an unhelpful positive deflection.
Scenario 1: Person expresses frustration with neighbour...
'Sorry to hear your neighbour sounds difficult but at least we live in the country where there's lots of space to get away and focus on the positive right? :)
This sort of deflection is designed to negate the person's feelings and can make them feel like they were ungrateful to voice their experience in the first place because they should be focused only on the positive. It would be like meeting someone lying on the side of the road starving to death and saying: 'oh sorry you're starving.. but at least the sun is shining!'
This often makes the person feel ungrateful for having shared any sort of negative feeling in the first place and the likelihood that they will reach out again for support or empathy is low which then contributes to isolation and at times depression.
Deflectors can get trapped in ego thinking: 'Good for me for helping them to stop focusing on the negative. Yay me, I'm such a positive person. I'm better than them.'
Criticism and judgment of the person for feeling, experiencing or saying anything negative.
Scenario 2: Person expresses sadness & shock over dense new development on former farmland...
E.g. 'I disagree and am offended by your comment. You're wrong to criticize developers who built a new housing development on the land you grew up on. How dare you make the new residents feel badly for living there by sharing that you miss the views from your childhood memories! You should be ashamed of yourself!
Shaming and judgment makes people feel unsafe and shuts people down from wanting to share or connect again. Also, being offended easily is typically a sign of low self-esteem. Our opinions and values of ourselves and the world around us shouldn't be so fragile that someone else sharing theirs can easily upset us. Being offended often means that we need everyone else to agree with us or flatter us in order to feel good. Ironically, shaming and judgment typically ensure that the person will reject not only our perspective but us as well.
Shamers can get trapped in ego thinking: 'Well I'm glad I taught them a lesson on how to be a better human... like me really. Yay me, I'm awesome. I would never do that. I'm a better human.'
THE FIXERS: The advice givers who 'seemingly' may want to be helpful but who often really want validation of their knowledge and superior ability of handling situations.
Scenario 3: Person expresses anger over a decision by the municipality that affects their land
'Well I think that what you should do is refer to the bylaws and review the statistics (cue number sharing) and then you should take it up with the municipal court. That's what I did, I had the same situation and this is what I will continue to do in the future so you should do this too .'
The problem with fixers is that they often don't stop to:
- ask if the person actually wants their advice or help,
- ask what the person has tried to do already to fix the issue themselves,
- often state that people 'should' do this or that when really someone 'could'.
Fixers can get trapped in ego thinking:
'Well thank God I fixed the problem thanks to my level-headed thinking and superior knowledge. Yay me, I'm much more knowledgeable and awesome and really so much better at how I approach these things.'
Deflection, shaming and fixing happens everywhere, not just online.
It happens within families, couples and at work. So why do we do it?
1) Some aren't comfortable with emotion or specifically negative emotions. This is often when they will deflect or fix.
2) Shaming can happen when someone feels the need to defend someone or something else they value. It's also a way to put others down in order to elevate one self which is often the case when feeling offended. Defending our values and increasing our self-esteem can be done without shaming others and heeds much more sustainable results.
3) People with low self-esteem will often fix as a way to feel more useful, appreciated and get praised for being smart, wise or knowledgeable.
Whether conscious or not, these 3 response types have something to gain for themselves, that is to make themselves feel helpful, superior or better.
SO WHAT'S A HEALTHIER RESPONSE?
To answer this we must ask ourselves:
What are people looking for most often when they share or express themselves?
Most often they just want to be heard, validated and understood.
(Sometimes they want help. But only sometimes.)
Did you know that according to new science shared in a Ted Talk entitled: How to Make Stress Your Friend, Dr. Kelly McGonigal explains that: CONNECTION is one of the most important things we can do in order to create greater stress resiliency. How are people supposed to connect when they're shot down for sharing any sort of feeling or experience that isn't positive?
So how do we create CONNECTION and a SAFE SPACE?
Empathy involves identifying someone else's feelings and reflecting them back. It doesn't involve deflection, shaming or fixing. It validates how the other person feels or what they've experienced without judgment. It creates a safe space.
THE EMPATHIC RESPONDER
Here are some examples of empathic responses that contrast the ones showcased earlier:
1) I'm so sorry to hear you're having this experience with your neighbor. That must be very stressful for you. What do you think might help resolve this?
2) That must have been very disappointing for you to see a new development in the field where you built all of those childhood memories. I imagine it feels a bit like the loss of an old friend, a place that brought you comfort. Is there anything we can do to help ease your sadness? I might have a few pics of the field I could share with you if you'd like to have them. Let me know if that would be helpful.
3) I imagine it must feel very frustrating to have to deal with this situation and stressful for you as well. I'm sorry you're going through this. If it's helpful, I'd be happy to share how I managed to resolve a similar issue I had with the municipality.
Of course you have to find your own vibe and express yourself in your own unique way but specific wording aside, showing empathy goes a lot further to creating a sense of community, safe spaces, solidifying relationships and in combatting isolation and depression.
So consider this your safe space. If there's something you wish to share or ask me I invite you to do so. If you want advice then let me know. If you just want to be heard that's cool too.
I got you.
PS. Sam has been teaching Effective Communication and Active Listening skills for over a decade.
She's synthesized the best of her workshops in an all new on-line program.
View it here: http://www.samanthabiron.com/new-program