“How do I support the people in my life?”

That was the Google search I found myself deep in a few weeks ago.

I’d realized that I had a few canned responses when it came time to be there for the people in my life, classic hits like “Have you tried… (insert my advice that I hope will fix all their problems)” or “What if you thought about it this way…. (insert new perspective that I hope will change everything).”

But I found myself thinking: Is that what people really want to hear? Does jumping into I-can-fix-this mode actually help them?

So I asked Google, and, in the depths of the internet, I came across an article that has since changed the way I support the people in my life—and myself, too. And it all comes down to starting my support with a simple question: Do you want empathy or strategy right now?

The brilliant question comes from empathy educator Kate Kenfield. “When people ask me this question, I feel understood and heard,” she writes on her blog. “I feel connected to them.”

Kenfield explains that the question works well because it gives the person you’re trying to support an opportunity to direct the conversation, something she calls “communicative consent.”

“It gives people choice about how they want to be supported,” she writes. “I have a deep value for communicating with my loved ones in ways that are mutually respectful.”

Reading this, I felt a lightbulb switch on in my head, one that illuminated a side of guilt, too: Why have I never asked the people in my life how they wanted to be supported?

The only answer I could think of: It feels uncomfortable. For me, it feels easier to just dive in and try to fix things HGTV-style than to sit in the intensity of whatever someone’s going through.

For me, it feels easier to just dive in and try to fix things HGTV-style than to sit in the intensity of whatever someone’s going through.

Strategy, I can do. Empathy? It feels scary.

Turns out, I’m not alone in feeling that way.

“It shows our discomfort with other people’s discomfort,” Nedra Glover Tawwab, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., tells Shine. “We want someone to feel better, so we are very quick to give them these strategies—‘Have you tried this, think about that, maybe it happened for this reason…’ We’re trying to be helpful, but most people don’t find those things actually helpful.”

Tawwab cites a recent poll she did on her Instagram, asking her 233K followers if they prefer to just vent or get advice from someone when they’re struggling. “I think 70% of people said they just wanted empathy,” Tawwab says. “Not necessarily suggestions on how to fix the problem, but, ‘Wow, that sounds really tough,’ and that sort of affirmation or validation.”

How to Lean Into Empathy

Kenfield recognizes that going down the empathy path with someone can feel scary—but it’s a skill worth learning.

“Sitting with the uncertainty of someone else’s feelings, without knowing what those feelings are or how to fix them, is uncomfortable AF for most of us,” Kenfield writes on her blog. “But being able to sit with that uncertainty and be empathically present is how we deepen our connections, how we heal, and how we grow as humans.”

'Sitting with the uncertainty of someone else’s feelings, without knowing what those feelings are or how to fix them, is uncomfortable for most of us.' - Kate Kenfield

Before I started incorporating the question into my conversations, I knew I needed to get a better understanding of what empathy feels and sounds like.

Tawwab defines it as “speaking from a place of understanding.” “It’s not that you have to have the exact experience that someone is talking about, but just be able to dig in and say ‘I know how it feels to be sad’ or ‘I understand what grief is,’” she says. “It’s that you understand what the emotion feels like.”

It can be broken down into two steps:

●︎ Ask yourself: Can I understand how this might feel to this person?

●︎ Reflect your understanding back to the person while keeping the conversation focused on them.

Tawwab says that second part is important: Empathy is less about how you feel or what you did when you were in a similar situation, and more “That sounds really tough for you” or “This sounds like it’s really overwhelming,” she says.

Kenfield calls this approach “empathic concern.” “Empathic concern is when you’re curious about and nonjudgmentally engaged with someone else’s emotional world,” she writes on her blog. “It’s about the pursuit of identifying what someone else might be feeling. It’s about connecting with their feelings, without trying to offer unsolicited advice or hijacking the conversation with your own feelings.”

It’s different from what she calls “empathic contagion,” which is when you literally “catch” and carry someone else’s feelings, a recipe for your own stress and burnout.

Think of it like this: Empathic concern is more about connecting with someone over how they feel rather than carrying someone else’s emotions along with your own.

Using the Question in Your Life

For me, it wasn’t easy to switch my supportive style. The first time I asked someone “Do you want empathy or strategy?” I felt like an actor going off script. I had to deliberately stop myself from blurting out unsolicited advice and instead create space to see what they wanted from me.

But what I found: People appreciated it.

Some people in my life wanted strategy, so I moved right into my tried-and-true advice giving tactic. But other people did just want me to sit with them and how they feel.

While it felt scary at first to offer empathy instead of strategy, it actually felt better in the long run. Why: Some things in life aren’t fixable with a new perspective or strategy or habit.

When it comes to things like grief, illness, tragedy—jumping into strategy is like trying to put a bandaid on something that just needs to breathe. Some emotions just need compassionate recognition—they require time, empathy, and personal growth to become more manageable.

I realized "supporting someone" means leaning into that hard truth with them, not pretending that my advice can solve everything. It's switching my mindset from thinking that my only value to someone is if I fix their problems, and know it stems from being there for them in a multitude of ways.

'Supporting someone' means switching my mindset from thinking that my only value to someone is if I fix their problems, and know it stems from being there for them in a multitude of ways.

And the truth is: We can be there for ourselves in a multitude of ways, too.

When I’m feeling stressed or grief, I now ask myself: Do I want empathy or strategy? And if it’s empathy, I take a few deep breaths and just try to name how I’m feeling and what might be contributing to it.

Advice is easy. Advice is one Google search away. But more often than not, what we need isn’t advice. It’s doing the hard work of sitting with how we feel or recognizing how others feel. It’s giving ourselves space to lean into empathy and strategy.

So, what do you want right now: Empathy or strategy?


Read next: How to Protect Yourself From 'Empathy Burnout'

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