When Personal News or Life Events are Turned into Object Lessons

Serious Conversation

There are times when we may be called upon to serve or teach others, which may also involve providing examples and implication of object lessons.

Classroom teachers use visual or tactile examples to help learners focus on a subject or concept.  Sometimes outcomes related to the subject, which may be harmful, are used to convey a deeper message.  

In chemistry, a video demonstrating the danger of mixing certain chemicals serves to inform students of desired or expected behavior.  A Sunday School teacher might include a warning of certain choices as an object lesson to encourage better behavior.

In everyday conversation with someone, you might find yourself listening to a response with an object lesson nested into it.  Perhaps it was unintentional, or meant with good intentions, but the result is usually a chill hanging over the remainder of the conversation.  You’re left feeling that what you said needed some correction or guidance.

The Downside of Conversational Object Lessons

The purpose of sharing personal news is to have others join in on your excitement, to seek good advice, or to simply get something off your chest.

When you don’t receive any of these things, the conversation leaves you deflated or disappointed.  Which of the examples below would make you feel this way?

You’ve just been gifted tickets to a rare performance and are sharing your excitement with friends.

  • Friend 1 responds: “It’s very neat that you are in a position to get those tickets.  Not just anyone would have contacts to allow them that privilege.”
  • Friend 2 responds: “Super!  Please take lots of pictures when it’s permissible.  As you know, I’m a big fan!”

A family member is diagnosed with a condition that requires skin surgery and you are breaking the news to your relatives.

  • Relative 1 responds: “Oh dear!  Awful!  Well, we should feel grateful we live in America and you have good insurance, unlike so many others with this condition.”
  • Relative 2 responds: “I’m very sorry you’re facing this.  Is there anything I can do to help?”

You have a bad cold, but there is an event you need to attend so you go.  You realize afterwards you ought not to have been there for the sake of others.  You write an apology to your dinner partners.

  • Person 1 responds: “Well, I hope you feel better soon, but this is what common sense should remedy ahead of time.”
  • Person 2 responds: “So glad you are taking care of yourself now.  Your team-player attitude should be commended.  Thank you for letting me know.”

A player on your daughter’s volleyball team is having trouble with a recurring injury and won’t get to play in two key tournaments.  Her mother shares her disappointment with some other parents.

  • Parent 1 responds: “Callie, this is really hard on you and Justine.  You may remember that Mary faced the same challenge two years ago and our whole family was sad and disappointed.”
  • Parent 2 responds: “Callie, it’s just too bad about Justine’s injury.  It will be an uphill battle to regain her position on next year’s team, but she will be fine before you know it.”

I’m sure you noticed that the first response in each example was a little off-putting.  With or without intention, the people responding inserted an object lesson that left a bit of a void in the conversation.

If someone were aiming to be etiquette-ful, the second response is clearly the better in all cases.  The person responding is putting the other person’s concern first, linking in as close as possible to her own experience, and showing support.

The Role of Compassion

The noticeable difference between the examples in each scenario above is that one expresses compassion and one does not.  The second response examples are clear expressions of empathy.

Both sympathy and empathy hold degrees of expressing compassion and understanding, but empathy holds a deeper experience of being able to “go there,” either by direct personal experience or by willingness to extend heartfelt connection and shared feeling.  The key word is feeling, as mutually shared feelings are involved. 

Whether you aim to offer sympathetic or empathetic responses to others, it is helpful to avoid tacking on object lessons.  They are often interpreted negatively and can put the person hearing the remarks on the defense.

Imagining “What it’s like to be on the other side of me” also extends to the desire to recognize the “me” in “you” – the shared commonalities of everyone.  Using this common bond brings us closer to each other.

If you’d like to dive a little deeper into expressing sympathy and empathy, and the difference between them, enjoy this short video:


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