Not being a part of a marginalized group is no excuse to not actively advocate for the rights of these groups. While it is important to be present on the fronts of activism (i.e., protests, rallies, gatherings, and many more), it is sometimes more prevalent in any given moment to be able to listen to marginalized peoples, hear their struggles, and respond accordingly. People have the inherent bad habit of immediately resorting to sympathetic listening and response as a means of interacting with a struggling marginalized person.
In most cases, sympathy is not a productive way to interact with people who are sharing something personal with you.
Empathy, by definition, is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. This is vastly different from sympathy which is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”. Solely looking a definitions it is almost immediately apparent as to why empathy is a better way of conducting dialogue as opposed to sympathy. Despite this, there are still important steps that need to be taken in order to ensure empathetic responses.
It Isn’t About You!
When people come to someone to talk, odd are they want the conversation to be centered around them and their experience. It is extremely self-serving to take someone’s struggle, and compare it to a problem that you have had. People understand that they are not the only one who has ever had an issue before. However, the last thing that you want someone who comes to you to talk is to feel like you only care to share your own experience. Realize that it isn’t about you, and the oppression that someone is feeling is unique to them.
Never “At Least”…
Sharing a struggle with someone is an important step in either coming to a solution to an act of oppression or just venting their feelings. This isn’t just an important step, but it is a difficult step. What makes this even more difficult? When someone trivializing your emotions. One of the most common ways people make an issue seem menial is through the phrase “at least”.
“At least you still have your health.”
“At least you aren’t in prison.”
“At least you aren’t struggling with this, that, and the other.”
Imagine someone saying these things to you. It makes you feel remorseful for sharing your problems with someone, and like your problem does not matter. It is oppressive itself to trivialize someone’s oppression.
Why Are They Coming To You?
An important part of crafting an effective response to someone sharing a problem with you is figuring out what they want out of the conversation. Though it may seem blunt, it is imperative that when someone shares something with you, you analyze the situation and see whether or not this person wants a certain type of response. Sometimes people just want to vent to someone. Other times, the person wants to figure a way to handle a certain situation. A good first step once the person is done talking is to stay quiet for a few moments. Many times, silence will reveal what the person wants out of the conversation, or they may even offer their own solution. If not, then feel free to say “Thank you for sharing that with me, I know it took a lot. What do you think the next step should be?” This alone shows you care about the outcome and how the person wants to proceed.