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Offering Empathy Without Gossip

Emily Dean


It’s a scenario we all know. A friend experiences conflict and seeks our help to sift through it. So we meet her there. We walk down into the pit and take a look around. We listen to understand. We sit closer to say - I care.


We let her burdens become our own. Because that’s what friendship is sometimes, feeling the weight of each other's pain and hurt.


But what happens when that friend is hurt by someone we know? What happens when we are only privy to part of the story?


I’m learning that hurt is never one-sided. There is often pain flowing from both places.


We hurt because we’ve been hurt.


We tear down because we’ve been torn down.


We forgive because we’ve experienced forgiveness.


When supporting a friend, I struggle when our eyes meet and with a tilt of her head she says, “what do you think?” It’s here I feel pressure to make everything okay. I’m a helper by nature. So my first thought is to clean things up, craft a happy ending, and tie it all up with a bow. All because I don’t like conflict. I’d rather not stir the pot (unless it’s for soup). And yet conflict is essential, necessary, and natural. Often a relationship comes out stronger than before.


Often we come out stronger than before.


And while deep down, I think our intentions are pure, in wanting our friend to feel seen and safe, I find myself at a crossroads of two very different paths.


The first path fuels the fire and picks a side. We agree that whatever happened was wrong and confirm she’s in the right. It might feel easier to throw the other person under the bus. Heck, they hurt our friend. We protect the ones we love, right? As she processes the hurt, we echo her sentiments.


Unintentionally, we begin pointing out the flaws and shortcomings of the other person. What was meant to help might actually be on the verge of gossip.  


The other path is one of restoration. This is the posture I work hard to take. It’s choosing words that support healing, whether in the relationship or a friends heart.


This is not something I’ve mastered, it’s something I practice. It’s not something we perfect, it’s something we cultivate and seek. It involves a widening of self -- an openness to more than just our own ideas and beliefs. It involves humility and getting out of the way, understanding it isn’t our job to put the pieces back together, it is our role to offer presence and gaze.


So how do we this practically? Through trial and error, I’m learning three ways.


We listen. We listen with all we have. We hold back from offering advice and speaking from our own experiences right away. We put our phones down and sit in the tension, as uncomfortable as it might be. We sit to say, I’m in this with you. You are not alone. I’ll stay as long as you need. When someone truly listens, I often find healing on my own, in my own timing. Often the answer is there, waiting to be found, I just needed to talk it out and sift through the cobwebs.


We validate hurt rather than simply agree. To validate says, “I believe you. I’m sorry this happened. It sounds really painful.” When we agree, we take the focus off our friend and the situation and make it about us. “I can’t believe she did that. I would have been so... If I was there, I would have…”


I’m learning that validating is so important because it says we respect and honor someone's experience. Personally, I find it so thoughtful when a friend reminds me that it’s okay to be angry or upset, that I don’t have to pull up my bootstraps and get over it just yet. I’m able to sit in the pain a little. When we only agree, I think we fuel anger and resentment, allowing it to build, and ultimately keeping someone in a place of hurt, rather than helping them move through it.


Lastly, we ask open-ended questions to understand. Questions like, “Before right now, how have you and this friend been doing? What has time together felt like? How have you worked through conflict before?”  When someone asks me open-ended questions, I find I’m able to sift through anger and hurt to find what might actually be going on beneath the surface. I can peel back the layers and see things a little more clearly.  


I’m slowly learning that conflict doesn’t have to be a dead end road. It’s an opportunity to lean in close, help carry the load, and find new growth in a seemingly barren place. What might a posture of restoration look like for you? And how has a friend offered support as you’ve walked through conflict?



Words by, Maeve Gerboth | Photo by, Sarah Garman

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