Recently, I wrote about empathy being the key. But we still have to turn the knob, open the door, walk through, and deal with what is on the other side of the door.
Sometimes just having empathy and not knowing what to do with it can make us feel strong emotions. Vulnerable, weak, scared, sad, angry, the list goes on. No matter what the situation is, there are two steps that you can almost always fall back on (there are always exceptions!).
First, manage your own reaction
This step is extremely important for us to be able to take any other steps. If we are overwhelmed with emotion, that emotion is going to drive our behavior. If we are angry, we are going to yell. If we are vulnerable or weak, we are probably going to get defensive. If we are sad, we are burdening the one we want to help with our sadness. Sometimes those intense emotions can shut us down and cause inaction. Acknowledge how you are feeling, accept your feelings in that moment, and take steps to manage your reaction to your feelings. Managing your own emotions might mean taking some deep breaths, going for a walk, doing an enjoyable activity, listening to some calming music, or another strategy you have found that works for you.
Then, validate the emotions of the other person
How many times have you wanted someone to know that someone else "gets it" or to feel like someone truly sees you? If you are using empathy correctly to really understand how someone might be feeling, remember that the intensity of what they are feeling is probably more intense than what you are feeling. Sometimes we really aren't able to imagine what the other person might be feeling, but we can validate that too. The easiest thing to say is often "I can't even imagine what you are feeling right now." I remember years ago a client saying they disliked a previous therapist because the therapist had said "I understand what you are feeling" when there is truly NO WAY the therapist could possibly have felt the intensity of what that person felt. The truth is sometimes we really cannot understand unless we have experienced it ourselves, especially if it involves something extremely traumatic. In other situations, you might try to label the emotion and add something like "and my guess might be wrong or only scratching the surface" another option is "I am here to listen if you want to talk." It can be easier with young children to simply label the emotion "you look angry right now, it is okay to be angry." Regardless of which message you pick, the goal is letting the person know that emotions, as intense as they may be, are okay to experience.