Posted on January 20th, 2016

Well-Meaning Mistakes

Over the years, I have reached out to many Jewish professionals when I was having a hard time. I have asked for help and support and received condescending lectures and misguided anecdotes. Some people have been incredibly helpful. Others haven’t. Why not? Let me share a few mistakes that some well-meaning people have made. Hopefully you’ll find them useful.

  1. Relaying your own experiences to make the sharer feel less alone.
    Why this doesn’t work: First, the person is asking for help, so the conversation should revolve around her, not you. Talking about yourself may make the sharer feel like you are invalidating her feelings.
  2. The “think positive” approach.
    Why this doesn’t work: People tell me to look at the “cards” I have and “see them in a different light.” That’s very difficult when you’re immersed in a tough place. You may have perspective a few years later, but it is difficult to learn from experiences in the present.
  3. Pity or the “I’m Sorry” approach
    Why this doesn’t work: I know that when you say you’re sorry, you don’t mean to hurt me. I know that you don’t understand, but pity won’t change that.

Alright, everyone still with me? Great. You’re probably thinking, Emily, you just told me what not to do. But what should I do instead? Empathetic listening is a term that I learned on Dear Hank and John (it’s a podcast). It is essentially being a comforting mirror. You reflect the emotions that the person is sharing with you. For example, “you seem really upset about this” is a validating answer because it acknowledges the sharer’s emotions without needing to understand the experience. The second part of empathetic listening is asking clarifying questions and trying not to interrupt any answers. Asking questions will make the sharer feel heard. Finally, don’t forget the power of a hug. This is often my strategy when I know that someone is upset about something, but they don’t want to talk about it.

Emily Dana is a student at Brandeis University, a lover of all things Jewish, Roman history, and studying micro expressions. To read more, visit