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.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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