Showing sympathy in English—3 dos and 3 don'ts

Every dark cloud has a silver lining

Showing that you care about someone is important. As you build relationships with English speakers, you will eventually have people close to you who experience a difficult time.

Being able to show sympathy is not always easy. Even in your native language, it's sometimes a challenge. Every person is unique, and connecting with them requires a somewhat unique approach. Also, every situation is different, and dealing with it well means you need to be sensitive and understanding. 

Imagine your colleague says to you, "I just had the worst client meeting of my life." What would you say or do?

Here are three things not to do, and then three good ideas of what to do.

✘ Don't say

1) ✘ "Don't feel bad."

It's okay to feel bad, especially after bad things happen. In fact, it would be weird if you didn't feel bad. Yes, it's unpleasant. But it's necessary to process the bad feelings, not avoid them. 

Some people have a bad habit of bottling up their emotions. Of course, you should pick the right place and time to process your emotions. Don't do it at the meeting! But, if you have some space, then, yes, take time to feel bad. 

2)  "I know exactly how you feel."

Don't assume you know how someone feels. You may have experienced something similar, but people can have different reactions to even the same situation. You also can't feel another person's feelings.

3. ✘ "The exact same thing happened to me."

Every person's experience is unique. You may have had a similar experience, but it was certainly not exactly the same. 

Instead, you can say, "Something similar happened to me..." if you think it will help the other person feel less alone. Keep in mind that this conversation is about the person with the problem, though. They should get the spotlight for now. 

✔ Do say

1. ✔ Nothing, at first. 

Quiet listening comes first. If someone tells you about a tough experience, you should listen. That means, at first, saying almost nothing. This is the one time your language teacher will tell you to not to speak! 

This does not mean you should stay quiet for long. But at first, give the person a safe space to talk where they won't feel judged.

2. ✔ "That sounds terrible/rough/tough/difficult/etc..."

Show that you understand the person's feelings by describing the situation. Feelings are not logical—they usually don't need to be explained. They just need to be understood. This is active listening.

There are many ways to show you understand. You can also ask follow-up questions, or share a little of your own experience (not too much—remember this is about the other person, not you). As long as you are showing understanding, you are on the right track.

3. ✔ "I'm glad..."

Ending a sympathetic conversation is challenging. If it's a major incident like a death or a trauma, then the conversation may take a long time. It may even take years to finish processing. 

After first spending plenty of time quietly and then actively listening, you may want to try reframing the situation. This means you say that, yes, the bad thing happened, but there may be a chance for something good to come out of it. There is plenty of evidence that optimistic thinking helps to improve feelings about a situation. 

Do not reframe the situation quickly. Give the person time to feel bad before cheering them up. You can safely reframe the situation by using "I..." statements:

  • I'm glad we had a chance to talk about this today. 
  • I'm glad you felt like you could come to me.  

If the situation is small, you might use the term, "silver lining." In English, we say, "Every cloud has a silver lining." It means that you should not feel hopeless. Difficult times are like dark clouds. They pass overhead and block the sun, but they do pass. (Take a look at the top picture to see an example.) In other words, some bad situations have something positive hidden in them. You just have to look for it.

  • I can see how that meeting was terrible. I'm glad your team helped you, though. I suppose the silver lining might be that your team can pull together and support each other even more. 

Hopefully, you won't need to use this language, but if you do, you should be prepared. Try writing about it for homework or asking your next teacher.

silver lining [idiom]—we use this idiom to emphasize hope or optimism about a negative situation.