If you use these 5 phrases, you aren’t as empathetic as you think

Are you accidentally a dismissive listener?

Dismissive listening is the opposite of empathetic listening. It says “I want to fix you” or “I want to fix your problem” instead of “I hear you, what do you need?” While empathetic listeners are able to determine what a conversation partner wants or needs, dismissive listeners tend to be less charismatic in conversation and can be seriously holding back their relationships by leaning on inefficient (and generally less empathetic!) listening skills. As a result, they tend to be less effective leaders, mentors, parents and friends.

The good news: Dismissive listening isn’t a personality, it’s a practice. It can be corrected. The first step is diagnosing the situation. If you use any of these phrases, you may be engaging in dismissive listening. Keep reading to determine how you’re leading conversations down the wrong road — and what to say instead.

It’s worth noting that these critiques don’t apply to conversations that open with someone asking for advice or feedback. Instead, they apply to more subtle, open-ended conversations where empathetic listening is required.

1. “Aww! Don’t be upset!”

If someone comes to you when they’re upset about something — from missing out on promotion to experiencing a difficult life event — countering by telling them not to experience their feelings is reductive and dismissive. While you’re a kind person and want to see them happy again as soon as possible, asking them to simply not be upset may make them feel guilty for bringing it up or feel like their emotional experience isn’t valid.

What to say instead: I’m listening. That sounds hard.

This phrase reconfirms that you were a safe person to have this conversation with and validates their feelings. It also allows them the space to lead how the conversation progresses.

2. “What if you try this?”

Most of the time, people are approaching you with a conversation — especially a conversation about a problem at work or at home — to vent and have their experience validated. You’re a nice person and you want to help, but leading with unsolicited advice focuses the conversation on fixing the problem from your perspective instead of on how the problem is affecting your conversation partner. That’s dismissive of their experience and can lead them to feel frustrated and not heard.

What to say instead: I want to help. How can I show up for you moving forward?

Saying this allows you to take action and offer help without inserting your own solutions or opinions into space where someone hasn’t asked for them. If they want help, they’ll tell you how you can engage. Or, they’ll tell you they just needed you to listen.

3. “Oh! You should read/listen to this…”

Similar to the above, this well-intentioned phrase offers unsolicited advice — and shallow advice, at that. If someone is approaching you with a difficult experience — from a layoff to getting into a serious fight with a friend — they likely know where they can go to get advice. We all have Google on hand. Unless they ask, don’t offer those options up. It’s a bit deflective and insinuates their experience can be reduced to a problem that can be solved via educational podcast or inspirational memoir.

What to say instead: I want to help. How can I show up for you moving forward?

Instead, focus on their experiences and how they see you fitting into the larger conversation, if at all. Chances are, they just wanted to vent or wanted you to offer a real piece of wisdom. They’ll let you know!

4. “I totally get it. One time…”

While sometimes you really will get what your conversation partner is experiencing, most of the time, you won’t. We all live individual lives, complicated by our personal experiences, identity dimensions and personalities. While this phrase feels empathetic when you’re saying it, it may feel reductive or just plain wrong to the person on the other side. It also centers your experience over theirs. It’s best to proceed with this route only if you’re asked for similar situations or what you learned from them.

What to say instead: It sounds like you’re saying… Is that accurate?

Instead of assuming you understand what they’re experiencing, repeat back to them your impression of the situation. It centers them, reinforces that you’re listening and helps them progress the conversation in the direction they’d like it to go.

5. “You’ll be fine!”

If someone comes to you with a problem or difficult situation, telling them that it will all work out isn’t just invalidating, it’s not very helpful, either. You’re a nice person and you want to be encouraging and optimistic, but these words reduce the complicated experience someone might have and also deflects the conversation instead of allowing them space to talk through those emotions. This kills your credibility as a listener.

For example, telling a direct report that’s anxious for a presentation that they’ll be “totally fine!” is likely to kill their confidence coming to you for encouragement in the future. Similarly, telling a friend who just got laid off that they’ll be “totally fine because they’re so talented!” makes them unlikely to come to you with complicated, hard situations in the future.

What to say instead: It sounds like you’re saying… Is that accurate? How do you think it will impact you moving forward? How can I show up for you?

To avoid being reductive, reconfirm with someone how you think they’re feeling and how the experience is impacting them. Then, ask how you can help. This centers their experience without reducing it, shows interest in how they foresee the experience continuing to impact them and allows you to expertly diagnose what they’re expecting from the conversation.

How to Reap the Benefits of Meditation Without Meditating

 

The benefits of meditation are far reaching and have been well known for centuries. However, the idea of formal meditation doesn’t sit well with some of us.

The idea of sitting cross-legged for extended periods and delving inward puts many of us off before we’ve even got started. Even the word “meditation” can be a very real barrier to entry for some. What a shame, as the many benefits of meditation can be good for us all.

Those benefits can include:

  • reduction in the stress we feel
  • A deeper sense of calm and relaxation in our lives
  • Reduced feelings of anxiety
  • A better understanding of what we truly think/feel/want
  • Less feelings of anger, hurt, or disquiet
  • Being more present
  • Being more content
  • A better understanding of who we really are

This little list is just starting to scratch the surface. Meditating can be that powerful.

If meditating in a more traditional way for extended periods feels right for you, all power to you— please continue with your journey. If that isn’t you, don’t worry, I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be.

If you recoil a little when meditation is mentioned but still want to reap some of the rewards, I hope to offer several ideas that might work for you. But first, a bit of personal reflection.

I Confess I Do Not Have a Formal Meditation Practice

As someone that writes books and a blog all under the broad umbrella of simplicity and that can often be found leafing through books and words by Thich Nhat Hanh, Bruce Lee, Sun Tzu, and Lao Tzu, it may surprise you to know I do not consider myself to have a formal meditation practice.

Perhaps somewhat out of step with the trend of our time, my morning routine (if I even have one) does not have time carved out for sitting cross-legged in a quiet room, reflecting on the universe at large.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire that others do this, but it never really felt like a fit for me. I’ve tried to make it a habit, at a few points in my life, but it just hasn’t stuck.

If I’m honest, I think the word “meditation” itself intimidates many of us. We perceive it to mean we need some special point of entry, or skillset, to reap the rewards.

All this said, perhaps paradoxically, I am also totally sold on the benefits of meditation and I want them to be a part of my life. I just happen to believe you can get those benefits in other ways. Your formal practice doesn’t have to be formal, and you don’t even have to call it a “practice.”

This is where the art of meditating without meditation comes in.

Meditation without Meditating in Action: My Top 6

Here are some of my favorite ways to achieve some of meditation’s powerful benefits without actually feeling like I am meditating.

1. Walking

Walking is my ultimate reset. It blows away the mental cobwebs that can accumulate. It provides new stimulus and re-energises a tired mind. Complex problems I’ve been struggling with can suddenly feel like they fall into place on a good, long walk. A fresh perspective can somewhat magically drift into view.

I like to walk early, before the rush and before the noise of human traffic drowns out the birds singing. Depending on where I am, I like to walk as close to nature as possible (a nice park, a beach, a hike over rolling hills). This is as close as I consider I get to a formal meditative practice.

2. Being at one with the outdoors and nature

The natural world is a passion for me. Something that breathes life and color into any day, if I just make time to stop and notice what is going on around me. I find it grounding and uplifting all at once.

Nature presents us with a constant wonderland. It’s easy to take this for granted. We can fix this by spending some time just being at one with nature and reconnecting with the great outdoors, and we’ll feel so much better for it.

Be amazed by that spider’s web glistening with the morning’s dew.

Take in the sun rising and setting.

Make time to watch the clouds moving overhead, soak up the inspiration that comes from the view.

Be endlessly in awe at nature’s ability to evolve, adapt, and deal with challenges.

Enjoy the offerings of new life and renewal each and every spring, by making deliberate time to stop and notice.

3. Losing myself in music (art)

Some would say this is cheating, as you are using outside stimulus to get a response; I say call it what you will. The benefits that people claim to get from meditation, I have and feel from losing myself in music.

Music is transformative. It can lift our mood on our darkest days, it can ease anxiety when we feel on edge about something, it can shift our mindset.

We can leverage different music at different times to support our state of well-being. Music is one of life’s true pleasures for me, one of the very last things I would want to give up.

However, if music isn’t quite as powerful a force in your own life, perhaps there is something else that is. Literature can, and does, serve the same end. Or a beautiful painting or sculpture that really moves us, or even a really great movie. All of the above can be transformative, life-affirming, and even life-changing ways we can apply ourselves.

4. Seeking stillness

Seeking stillness may sound like a total contrast to the earlier suggestion to listen to music; maybe it is or isn’t, but this time is necessary for me. This is time to let my mind just drift without expecting too much of anything from it. Letting it wander where it wanders. In a results-orientated culture, we can spend too little time here.

Cut to the core, this is actually what meditation is all about. For me, all it really means is taking the time to get in touch with our own thoughts and finding a point of reflection. It’s cutting out the external world for a while and tuning into frequency us. It’s about reconnecting with the signal, amongst the noise.

This is time to turn off the phone, unplug from the internet, and make space for some calm in our day.

Disconnecting a little from the busy world around us, to reconnect with ourselves.

No special cushion necessary, unless you want one, no special seating position necessary unless it helps trigger the state. Just make a commitment to be mindful and find some stillness in your own way.

5. Creating

For me this means writing and playing guitar.

Writing, in particular, is something I spend much time on. I feel better on days and weeks that I have made time to write creatively. Ideas flow freely and come out on the page. I make sense of thoughts and words and try to communicate as effectively as I can, then I refine (edit). When I am truly in a writing flow, this creative process can definitely feel meditative.

6. Exercise (calisthenics, yoga, and breathwork)

I am a fan and practitioner of calisthenics (working with one’s bodyweight as the weight). I find this form of training both physically demanding and endlessly interesting. I enjoy the raw simplicity.

Learning new moves or practicing well-worn moves, trying to perfect them, also has a meditative effect. I’m totally in the practice, and often have to be if the move in question is getting hard or has a balancing element. Trying to create whole body tension for some moves also means I need to be aware of where my breath is (am I holding it somewhere or letting it flow?).

Yoga is relatively new to me and I have been slow to embrace it, perhaps somewhat surprisingly as my wife is a yoga practitioner and teacher and has encouraged me to give it a proper go for years.  Knucklehead that I am, I finally took note and I’ve come to really enjoy this time. I now make time for working on the mat through my week, amongst other exercise I do.

As I am new to the yoga poses themselves, and how different teachers teach, I find I have to be totally present for yoga. No time to think about what comes after or what has just happened; to keep up with the class I have to listen. This has a calming effect on body and soul on the best days.

The breathwork, and constant queues to focus on breath, have also made me aware of where I tend to keep tension (physically and mentally).

Reframing Meditation

What’s great about this list is that you can use these practices interchangeably, and they can happily co-exist at the same time.

I think the “meditation” label puts as many off as it attracts. In busy and distracted times, this is a missed opportunity for us all to feel the benefits.

When we forget the labels, all we’re doing with the practices above is resetting a little. The art of meditating without meditating if you like.

Give it a go. String these resets together on a regular basis and feel the benefits for yourself. Who knows, maybe you’ll even be open to further experiments in formal meditative practice after doing so. If not, just find your own way. Keep what works for you, discard what doesn’t, and call it what you want, or call it nothing at all.