"What Empathy Is"
...And What It's Not
"The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear or the mind. Hence it demands emptiness of all of the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind."-Chuang-Tzu
Empathy is the basic practice that brings me to compassion. It is ultimately quite simple, and quite challenging. As a child growing up, and for most of my adulthood, I learned to listen with my mind... often with a purpose other than connecting to the person I was with. As I listened to people, I would focus on the future... "What can I say back?" or "What can I think of to fix this?" ... Other times I would go to the past, "What does that remind me of?"
When I thought these things I became distracted from the moment, more disconnected and I less able to understand what the other person was experiencing. Then I discovered empathy.
Empathy is the exploration of our human experience... our feelings... our needs... our life energy trying to emerge and guide us. It is the mindful questioning, the wondering and the genuine curiosity about what we or someone else is going through.
This may sound strange, but I have witnessed over and over again, that this search, or wondering, is the stuff of connection on a deeper plane and sometimes, even an opening of spiritual space.
The ability to be present in this way challenges many of us 21st century humans, highly trained in thought... as opposed to simply listening. Often when we are trying to be empathic (even in situations where we are feeling compassionate), we may say things that do not connect us with the other person as well as empathy might.
We may choose to have "non-empathic" forms of communication as part of our lives... and of course, many can serve us wonderfully. They're just NOT empathy. They tend to fill the space; they do not tend to open it up. Becoming aware of these "non-empathic" forms of communication can help make choices to have a deeper connection when we want it.
To illustrate, below is a quote... something we may hear from a friend, followed by some examples of habitual, "non-empathic" responses that can prevent us from moving to a deeper connection. This is not to say these forms of communication are "wrong". They're just not empathy. Do any of these responses sound familiar?
"Sometimes I just hate my job. My boss is such a slave driver."
Comparing and One-upping
"Yeah, mine too. MY boss is the worst. She makes going to work a living hell. I remember a time when..."
Often, when people share what's going on for them, it reminds us about our situation. We may, without thinking about it, share that experience. So think about it... Did we just change the subject? Are they telling us this to elicit our experience? Probably not.
Educating and Advising
"Oh yeah, I know what you mean. You know there's this great book called How to Love a Boss that Stinks"... or "Yeah, when my boss does that, I've learned to ..." or "Have you ever tried speaking to the HR department?"
When we hear of someone's pain, we may assume they want us to tell them how to deal with the situation. And of course, we don't like to see people we care about in pain, so we want to help them. Are we doing this to understand what is alive in them or are we working on a fix? Do we expect them to take our advice? And if they don't, are we OK with that? Are we being present to their experience? Probably not.
My friend Marshall Rosenberg told me he only gives advice when it is asked for in writing, notarized and in triplicate. It helps him stay more present. And of course, advice has a place in life... It's just not empathy.
"That's nothing. In this economy, you should be thankful you even have a job."
We may have a "knee-jerk" reaction to try to draw someone's attention to something else in an attempt to "make them feel better". Can you recall a time when you received this kind of response and you thought to yourself, "Oh yeah, that's so true. Thanks for that. I feel better now". I can't.
Fixing and Counseling
"OK. Calm down. Don't worry. We're gonna get through this. I know it feels bad now, but I'm sure it will get better. These things always have a way of working themselves out."
When we hear another's pain, we can feel uncomfortable ourselves and want to somehow fix things. If we check in with ourselves... whose need is that about?
"Oh, you poor thing. I'm so upset when I hear about that. I just hate that boss of yours."
Sympathy (the sharing of a feeling through an imagined shared experience) is different than empathy. It's kind of like responding to a drowning person by jumping into the water and drowning with them. Yes, it may let them know that you get what is going on for them. It's just not empathy.
Data Gathering and Interrogating
"So tell me, exactly what did he do? Has he done this before? Have you noticed a pattern here?"
Data gathering is often a precursor to advising, the warm up to fixing it all. It may come from a sense of OUR curiosity or our discomfort with their pain. We may have a genuine interest, to be sure. It's just not empathy.
Explaining and Defending
"Well, as a boss myself, I know sometimes we just need to crack the whip. He's probably under a lot of stress and doesn't really mean anything by it. It's really hard to be a boss with all that responsibility."
Sometimes WE are triggered by someone else's pain. This can be especially true in situations when we think we are "to blame" or "responsible". In these moments, we can become more concerned with our side of the story... OUR need to be understood. This often results in what I call TTNRS: "two transmitters, no receivers syndrome". Sometimes we call it "a fight". It's certainly not empathy.
"So where else in your life does this show up? Have you ever considered that this is a pattern for you? Perhaps it's because of your unfulfilled relationship with your father."
Sometimes we are so interested in "getting to the bottom of things" that we forget about the top. Our urge to understand in order to fix or our discomfort with someone's pain can have us rushing to our brains for answers. Or maybe we have dealt with our own pain this way. No doubt, there are places in life where analyzing is important. It's just not empathy.
So What Then? Perhaps Empathy
I'm sure none of us has ever said anything like these examples (heheheh *wry smile*). OK, I know I have, and likely will again. The difference now is that when I have the awareness of what I'm doing, I have the choice to do something else... if I want to.
I can recall times, before I developed my empathic skills and my trust in the power of empathy, when the experience of wanting to connect and not knowing how left me frustrated, confused and disconnected against my will.
This is where empathy comes in. In the beginning it can be SOOOO hard to refrain from these habitual ways of thinking and speaking. Our "robot" kicks in and away we go, like always.
Now we have a chance to add a new way of being to our lives... a new skill to create a new level of connection... empathy. Shifting to this new focus on feelings and needs is rarely easy. I know for me, it is a life work... one that has given me some of the most beautiful moments of my life.
More to come as the Compassion Course continues...
"The Car, the Clubs and the Cab Driver"
A few years back, when I was living in Manhattan, I loaned my car, a station wagon, to a friend who needed it to move into her new apartment. We had agreed that she would return it early that evening. That evening I waited to hear from her. I waited... and waited, and waited some more. No call, no car. I drifted to sleep waiting on my couch.
At about 2:30 in the morning, I was awakened by a phone call. "Thom, I just finished moving and I just don't have the energy to return the car tonight."
Still a bit groggy, I inquired, "Where did you leave it?"
She informed me that it was parked on a street in the meat packing district... with my golf clubs in plain sight in the back. Ten minutes later, after some serious self-empathy work (that's a story for another time), I was headed to rescue my car and my precious toys.
I staggered out into the warm rainy night. After a seemingly endless effort, I found a cab. I climbed in, told him my destination and we headed out, along the edge of Manhattan Island, down the West Side Highway. As we drove along side the Hudson River, we passed the USS Intrepid, a decommissioned battleship that functions as a floating museum.
The driver spoke. "The last time I saw that ship, I was stationed in Viet Nam." From my place in the back seat I could only see the cab driver's eyes reflected in the rearview mirror.
We made eye contact in the pale gray light.
I replied, "That must bring up quite a bit for you."
After a pause he spoke. "It does."
I listened into the silence that followed. More eye contact, more space. After a time, he spoke again. "When we came back, everybody hated us."
I sat quietly making space as the tires thumped rhythmically on the seams of the road, sounding eerily like a beating heart. Space for his pain, his need for being seen, for appreciation, for love. I watched the pain slowly seep into his occasional glance.
I spoke. "I imagine that was tough, risking your life like that. I bet it would have made a big difference to have gotten even some appreciation."
"Yes... Yes, it would have."
Still seeing only his eyes in the mirror, I watched as the tears slowly filled his eyes. We continued our ride, without speaking a word, as we rolled through the empty streets to our destination.
A few minutes later we arrived. I reached through the little glass hatch and paid the fare... and with compassion and connection in my heart said a simple "thank you". I swung the door open and started on my way. From behind me, I heard the sound of the cab door opening. As I turned, there was my new found friend, with an outstretched hand and a look of pure relief in his eyes, walking toward me. "Thank you." We shook hands and parted.
I will never forget that ride. Never.
Practice(s) for the Week
Practice #1 - Increase Your Awareness - See if you can notice yourself using any of the mentioned "non-empathic", habitual forms of communication. Later, when you have some time and space, see if you can imagine what an "empathic" response would be. What was that person feeling? What was that person needing, wanting to have more of, or yearning to experience? Check the feelings list and the needs list for the answer. Now imagine what you might say.
Practice #2 - Play the Empathy/Non-Empathy Game - To do this practice, work with a partner in person or on the phone.
First, write down a quote, something you might say when you would want some empathy, like "I'm feeling really stressed about my finances." Hint - Don't pick something too important - you'll understand why very soon.
Say your quote to your partner and have them respond with any of the "non-empathic" forms of communication mentioned in this week's message. This could be something like, comparing: "Oh you think your finances are bad? I've been broke for..." or educating:"The way I see it, there's a lesson in this for you"... or discounting: "Just relax, you'll be fine"... or data gathering: "Tell me exactly when this all started."
Next, try saying the same quote again with your partner giving an empathic response. This could be something like "Are you feeling scared because you need more peace of mind?"
Then, switch roles so that you have both had a chance to receive non-empathic responses and an empathic response that "lands". You'll know it when you hear it.
For this practice, it may be easier to start out with the simplest form of empathy, "Are you feeling __________ (feeling from the feelings list) because you need more ___________ (need from the needs list)."