Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Life Lessons: The Power Of Empathy

At all stages of my life I've faced challenges in understanding others, especially my loved ones and others who are part of my everyday life experience. When I worked as a counselor with men and couples, I heard hundreds of stories about how difficult it is for people to connect in meaningful and fulfilling ways.

Much later in my life than I like to admit, I recognized that I've had a "deficiency" I now call E.D.D. (empathy deficit disorder). Not to be confused with A.D.D. (attention deficit disorder), E.D.D. seems to be a widespread malady that I'm sure afflicts more just than men born in the 1940's or earlier. I'd guess that most people living today have the "disorder" or remnants of it, unless their feelings have always been listened to by loved ones and their needs always cared for during their lifetime.

I was surprised to read that even a presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama, has recognized the widespread "empathy deficit" in our culture. In a commencement speech in June, he said to the students:

"There's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us - the child who's hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.

As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier. There's no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You'll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what's going in your own little circle.

Not only that - we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses."

As I've done since I reached midlife, when I've wanted to learn something that "sticks", I create a class to teach whatever I've been struggling with in my life. Although about 40 years late, I recently taught an introductory class at OASIS which I call "Understanding With Heart: The Power of Empathy".

Much to my surprise and delight, 20 of the 23 people who signed up showed up on a Tuesday morning at 10:30 a.m. In the audience were 17 women and 3 men -- most of whom were in their 60's and 70's by my age guesstimate. As is usually the case at classes I've done at OASIS, the people were active participants with lots of questions and stories from their own struggles with attempting to be empathic with others.

I started the class by letting people know that I would be sharing my own experiences with empathy in my relationships as well as what I've learned from my loved ones and others, especially from Marshall Rosenberg -- author of Non-Violent Communication -- and Arthur Ciaramicoli and Katherine Ketcham, who wrote The Power of Empathy.

To begin the discussion of empathy, I define empathy as "respectfully understanding what others are experiencing". It is a way of knowing -- knowing what something would be like for the other person. Immediately the question arose regarding how empathy differs from "sympathy".

Empathy is not the same as "sympathy" which is sharing the other person's suffering emotionally. Sympathy is a way of relating -- knowing what something would be like to be the other person. Sympathy is "feeling with" whereas empathy is "feeling into" to understand another person's suffering.

Confusing? Yes, it can be. The best guide I know of is to pause, breath deeply, and focus inward to my heart and "listen" to see how I'm feeling emotionally. Intense emotion = sympathy. A sense of understanding (without intense emotion) = empathy. That seems to work best for me but only when I slow down and really listen to the other person (and my inner self!).

Moving on in the class, I invite people to do an "exercise" involving bringing to mind a time when they had difficulty responding empathically to someone who they care deeply about. The participants spend a few minutes writing down answers to five questions. I then I ask them to pair-up and share what they have written. It's a lively experience -- with lots of "buzz" in the room -- and most often, it's a challenge to bring the discussion to close.

The teaching from the experiential exercise focuses on Marshall Rosenberg's model for hearing with empathy. In a nutshell, here's what he proposes we say (which works when I remember to do it!):

When you . . . (describe what you are observing -- seeing and/or hearing) . . .

Are you feeling . . . (describe your "best guess" of what the person may be feeling)?

Because you need . . . (describe your "best guess" of what the person desires or expects) . . .

Would you like me to . . . (clearly describe "possible" actions the person may want)?

Simple? Not when your gut reaction to the person's anger, complaints, or judgments is to get defensive! Slowing down and breathing is essential. It can take time to accurately understand another person's feelings and thoughts. Avoiding snap judgments is a must! Paying attention to your body is crucial as you let the person's story unfold. It takes lots of practice ... and I'm still practicing ... and learning.

Next in the class, we look a empathic listening -- the skills involved and the biggest obstacles. I love what Holley Humphrey says about listening:

"The biggest listening secret is that when people seem to be complaining, they are really poorly expressing their own feelings and needs."

I wish I would always remember that whenever I hear a "complaint" from someone I love!

Humphrey notes that when we agree to be a listener (silently or verbally), it's important not to "grab the spotlight" away from the person we're listening to. She offers "10 Obstacles to Empathic Listening" -- my favorite of which (and the one I've done most often in my life) is to attempt to "fix-it" by giving advice, followed closely by trying to "explain it away". Neither have ever worked ... and never will!

The last portion of the class is devoted to the "dark side" of empathy. Yes, there is a dark expression of empathy. You see it in the everyday manipulators, the hardcore blamers, and -- worst case (and very skillfully) -- in sexual predators.

I share Arthur Ciaramicoli and Katherine Ketcham's "Ten Steps to Protect You Against the Dark Side of Empathy" and share their reminder to:

"Aways keep in mind the fact that empathy is a biological drive that evolved to protect us from danger. Using empathy to deceive or harm others is a perversion of its life-sustaining energy and reflects a weakness rather than a strength. In the end the positive, protective aspects of empathy will always overshadow the dark side."

That's a lot of material to cover in a very short hour and a half class. Hopefully, people take away exactly what they needed to make a positive difference in their lives. And to make their life even more wonderful than when they walked in the door that morning to attend the class!

Empathy offers a powerful path to understanding each other at a deep level. Ultimately, it shows us how to live fully and wholeheartedly with others.

I invite your comments and experience with the power empathy in your life.
Life Lessons: The Power Of EmpathySocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Life Lessons: The Importance of Arts Education

Reading Dana Gioia's article on "The Impoverishment of American Culture" (Wall Street Journal - July 19, 2007) got me thinking about the importance of arts education in my life. And it got me wondering how to convey the value of arts education to my loved ones and future generations who read my ethical will).

Today, with the decline of arts programs in our public schools, children's arts education now depends primarily on their parent's income. What a dramatic (and sad) state of affairs that the arts have become expendable as public school budgets get cut!

Growing up in western Minnesota in the 50's and 60's, my arts education consisted of participating in school music programs -- marching band (the tuba player), orchestra (tuba again ... with fewer "um-pahs") and choir (plus my Lutheran church choir -- directed by our school band leader who recruited singers from the band). Add to that, a one-time drama stint in a class play as Doc Gibbs in "Our Town". I don't recall any "fine art" classes but must have taken at least one studio art class in high school. My only display of artistic talent was in a "shop class" project where I did an inlay of a deer on a wooden tray.

I became an avid (and lifelong) reader after my 5th grade teacher read us "The Hardy Boys" mysteries in class. My writing highlight was the publication in our local newspaper of my report on our 6th grade class trip to the Ford car manufacturing plant in St. Paul (I still recall writing about "building eight cars per hour" which amazed us all!).

In college, I recall taking an art history class, studying paintings from Old Masters whose work was flashed on a big screen (and having a test requiring identification of the artist!). I also recall that massive tome by Janson, History of Art -- the heaviest (in weight!) book of my college days. I got involved in photography too, doing "artsy" black and white photos after taking a photojournalism class.

Along the way in college, I had an internship as an assistant editor of a national church organization's magazine for men (called "Event") which was at the forefront social changes in the late 60's (yes, there were progressive Lutherans in Minnesota!). In our second issue, I was in charge of getting a story together about Sister Corita Kent and her art -- choosing her art pieces to print in color (a really "big deal" for me and the publication at the time). Other than that, like many college students in those days, my arts education was going to the movies and taking in occasional music performances.

Looking back today at the arts education of my school years, I can see how those early experiences set the stage for a life blessed with many extraordinary (and varied) experiences of music, drama, fine arts, writing of poetry and prose, and reading hundreds (thousands?) of books of both fiction and non-fiction. Today, I can see the "golden thread" of my early arts education that has led me to active involvement with our local arts center and to writing a blog about artists. It even led to recently seeing paintings by Rembrandt and other Old Masters (some of which I must have seen first in that Janson art history tome in college!). Adding to the "thread" was my visit this month to the Salem Art Fair & Festival, a wonderful event with over 200 artists from around the country showing their work in a beautiful wooded urban park setting.

So what did Dana Gioia have to say about arts education that connects to my life and my hopes for future generations? From his review of studies on American civic participation, he notes:

"What is the defining difference between passive and active citizens? Curiously, it isn't income, geography, or even education. It depends on whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts. These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility."

Gioia goes on to say, "Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world -- equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being -- simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory, and physical senses. These are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories or songs or images."

"Art delights, instructs, consoles. It educates our emotions. And it remembers. As Robert Frost once said about poetry, 'It is a way of remembering that which it would impoverish us to forget.' Art awakens, enlarges, refines and restores our humanity."

Couldn't say it any better than that! Thank you, Dana Gioia, for so clearly saying what I have experienced in my life as a result of my arts education. And thank you for your advocacy for a new national consensus that recognizes that "the real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society."

My hope is that my children and grandchildren -- and future generations of Americans -- will value arts education and participate in the arts throughout their lives. If they do, I have no doubt that they will be blessed with many, many, magnificent life experiences!
Life Lessons: The Importance of Arts EducationSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Taking Action on Early Alzheimer's: Patient Activism

I've written about Alzheimer's in the past and was pleased to see USA Today feature a story on Tuesday (July 24, 2007) about "early" Alzheimer's patients. Reading about Richard Taylor's experience (and frustrations with the disease) offers a very personal view of one man's situation and the actions he's taking to speak out for people already silenced by the disease:

Patients take action on early Alzheimer's - USATODAY.com

The Alzheimer's Association is holding "town meetings" in four cities across the country inviting people to speak out. Locally, our Alzheimer's Chapter has monthly meetings to educate people about the disease. Wherever you live, I encourage you to learn about this disease which afflicts nearly half of all people over 85 (yes, mostly women!).
Taking Action on Early Alzheimer's: Patient ActivismSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Aging & Decision-Making: Mapping Uncharted Territory

A few weeks ago, I listened to an interview on the Jefferson Exchange which focused on decision-making as we age. The discussion got me wondering about how my ability to make decisions may change as I get older -- a subject I had never considered before.

Jeff Golden, the host of the radio show interviewed Ellen Peters, a senior research scientist with Decision Research, who had recently co-authored a journal article about the aging brain and decision-making.

Peters noted that how we think our way through information and how we feel our way through it effect our decision-making. And it depends on the situation which way of processing information works better.

Often, elders feel their way through decisions rather than think harder about them. Peters says "Thinking capacity declines with time. We learn less easily. We process information more slowly." But our emotional way of processing "may show improvements over time. We may tend to feel our way through decisions more when we are older."

Elders can be very intuitively intelligent, using what they have learned experientially throughout their lives to their advantage in making decisions. However, in unfamiliar situations and those dealing with numbers, older people tend to have more difficulty processing information and remembering it.

According to Peters, our memory and speed of processing generally decline with age but intuition remains stable throughout life. So elders rely more on their intuition in decision-making than younger people.

In response to a woman who called-in to the radio interview, Peters noted that "pattern recognition" plays a part in decision-making. She said that "as we get older, we see the forest, not just the trees" -- responding to the overall situation we face, not just the details -- when we need to make a decision.

Commenting about her research in a media story, Peters said "older people who make mistakes have less time and less physical resiliency to compensate for bad decisions than do younger people. Older people are more vulnerable."

"We may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but the old dog may have lots and lots of old tricks that help quite a bit. In some situations, the old dogs may be making better decisions than the pups."

Peters concluded the interview by saying that "deliberate decline is too simple a way to explain decision-making and aging." Our knowledge about the world through life experiences tends to rise over time even as the human brain's ability to process information declines with age.

So there is hope for this "old dog" as I age and make decisions in my life. Depending on the situation, I may even make better choices when I rely on my emotions and past experiences! Now, all I have to do is learn to be more patient with myself in situations where thinking harder about unfamiliar information will produce the best decision.
Aging & Decision-Making: Mapping Uncharted TerritorySocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Elder Storytelling Place - A Time Goes By weblog

One of the blogs I read turned me on to a great new blog (4 months old) that offers a place for elders to share short stories about their life. Wonderful idea! Lots of contributions from elders to read.

If you've got a story to share from your ethical call (or want to start your ethical will by writing a family or personal story), here's the place to start:

The Elder Storytelling Place - A Time Goes By weblog

The woman who started the blog, Ronni Bennett, has been blogging at "Time Goes By ... what it's really like to get older"-- another site worth reading if you're wondering "what it's really like to get older"! Enjoy!
The Elder Storytelling Place - A Time Goes By weblogSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

A Poem for Every Life

I received this beautifully illustrated poem by Linda Ellis from our Hospice Volunteer Coordinator today. Thought it contained the essence of an ethical will:

The Dash Poem

Pass it along to your loved ones and everyone you know who is living a --.
A Poem for Every LifeSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend