There’s a lot of talk these days about empathy. I happen to think that empathy is the answer to all the world’s problems, because all the world’s problems involve humans. Humans interacting with the intent to connect, using empathy as the tool for connection, create harmony. Humans who use the tools of blame and judgment create disconnection and disharmony. AKA problems.
Empathy seems like a no-brainer.
Walk a mile in another person’s shoes and all that stuff.
But I see well-intended humans (like, ahem, myself) missing opportunities for empathic interactions all the time. And other folks who believe that empathy is a personal trait you’re either born with or you’re not. All this has lead me to ponder what it looks like to teach empathy. As a skill.
This is my first attempt to contribute to our skill set as empathic pro’s in the making.
This morning I was reading Carolyn Hax’s advice column in the paper. A letter signed “Second Fiddle”, explained the pain this woman (the fiddle) felt around her situation with her fiancée and his daughter.
Second Fiddle writes:
“If we all go somewhere, they take souvenir photos together that don’t include me. I told him last week that I feel humiliated when they do this because it says to me they want to remember the trip as if I hadn’t been there. He understands, but, my goodness, how hurtful is that behavior?”
I found myself fixated on the phrase, “…how hurtful is that behavior?”
And all too familiar with his cousins:
“How rude is that?”
“How awesome is that?”
“How lame is that?”
“How exciting is that?”
The sleuth in me went to work trying to glean the intent of questions like these. I started remembering times when I’ve used similar phrases intending to receive empathy only to end up soliciting opposition.
Communication misfire. How puzzling.
We use questions like these to draw people in to our world, to give color to our emotional landscape. But despite our clever framing in our interest—I mean, isn’t it so totally, unequivocally X!—we often do not solicit the agreement and empathy we desire.
As I dug deeper into why this happens, I started noticing how the phrase—How X is that?—calls for an evaluation from the receiving party. Now you, my friend or confidant, must evaluate whether that would be X (hurtful, etc) to you based on the information I have relayed. Our personal internal landscape of emotions is not only externalized but also up for grabs to be judged. Judgment repels empathy and distances us from one another.
Second fiddle’s letter to Carolyn nails this.
She writes, “I feel humiliated when they do this because it says to me they want to remember the trip as if I hadn’t been there.”
This classic, “I feel X…” statement, which beautifully illustrates her internal emotional landscape for us…
…becomes the externalized question…
…“He understands, but, my goodness, how hurtful is that behavior?”
Notice how the question itself implicitly asks for empathy but explicitly asks for an evaluation. Carolyn is directed to evaluate the behavior rather than to give empathy for the feeling that behavior stimulated in Second Fiddle.
Since the human experience is different for us all, and Carolyn has a whole different set of life experiences, “that behavior” may not seem very “hurtful” to her. In an attempt to do what Second Fiddle explicitly asked her to do, evaluate how hurtful that behavior is, Carolyn (& many of us!) will filter that behavior through her own lens of experience, values, and needs rather than attempting to filter through the experience of Second Fiddle.
Filtering through the experience of Second Fiddle herself is an exercise in empathy. That is what empathy is—being able to put yourself in the place of another. But, as stated, the question doesn’t direct Carolyn toward giving empathy, it directs her toward giving an evaluation.
How could this possibly happen when it’s clear we don’t want to judged, we want to be heard?
Our habitual minds, quick to respond and please, answer the question itself, as explicitly stated. Proud of ourselves for doing what we’ve been asked, we might innocently respond to Second Fiddle, “That’s not really that hurtful. I mean it’s his daughter. If it were me I’d just let it be.”
Which we can see will fail to satisfy Second Fiddle who’d really like to hear something like, “Yes, I can see why that feels hurtful to you.” Not agreement for agreement’s sake or sympathy (pitying), but empathy.
Because we are more than our habitual minds, we can use reflection to easily see the implicit, unstated request for empathy. In order to do this in the moment in conversation, we must retrain the habitual mind from reacting to what is, on the surface, to see, hear, and understand what is beneath the surface.
This is empathic listening. It is a skill we can all cultivate to foster deeper connections and more satisfying interactions.