By Cara Crisler
Lately, I’ve been trying to build more inner stability as I experience “unstable times,” both in my changing relationship with my pubescent son and in the larger world around me. So of course I’m turning to all the suggested strategies like a Mindfulness course, meditation, more walks in nature, less social media, etc.
All of these things help . . . but then I re-enter my life, where things are going on that I don’t always like, or worse, fear. When I’m distressed, I see my husband working hard to remain calm, to be the steady rock I’ve relied on over the past 25 years. His love for me is solid, and he genuinely wants to support me when I’m less than stable myself. So the question is, “WHAT IS HELP THAT HELPS?” In my experience it’s the power of empathy.
What is Empathy?
What I’ve learned for myself is that when I’m feeling triggered, stressed, or overly worried, I mostly just want to be HEARD. Empathy is a very special way of listening—one which brings understanding, compassion and connection. Here’s one of my favourite descriptions, by Jeff Foster:
Just to sit, without expectation, with someone who is in grief or fear or loneliness or despair, without trying to fix them in any way, or manipulate their experience to match your idea of how it should be; just to listen, without playing the role of ‘expert’ or ‘enlightened guru’ or ‘the one who knows best’; just to be totally available to the one in front of you, and to walk with them through the fire, to hold their hand when they are broken—this is empathy.
Other Ways of Listening
Empathy is really different than what most of us have been taught or had modelled for us. We’ve been taught to listen to RESPOND, instead of to UNDERSTAND. Do you recognize these more typical ways of listening?
advising / fixing / solving: “I think you should…“
giving perspective: “Just see it like this…”
interrogating: “Who/what/when/how did it happen?”
analyzing: “You got that from your mother.”
educating: “You can learn from this…“
storytelling: “That reminds me when…”
sympathizing / agreeing: “He did that to you? How awful!”
shutting down: “It’s nothing to cry over.”
Tips for Empathic Listening
1. Park your thoughts: This isn’t easy to do, given our training to exchange thoughts and ideas. But in this new way of listening, it’s all about finding understanding for the other; it’s about having your full presence for the other. Find a place to store your thoughts and keep bringing your attention back to what is being shared and body language (which gives clues for #3 & #4) . . .
2. Listen silently: It helps to set a time limit, so that you know you are also caring for yourself. You could propose it like this: “How about for the next 10 minutes, you express whatever it is you want to say. Instead of replying, I’ll just give you my full attention. You don’t have to make sense or make it a great story, just know I’m listening and everything is welcome.”
3. Guess feelings: Without wanting to change the speaker, guess personal emotions that might be going on, but not expressed. They tend to transform very quickly when accepted, or allowed the space to just be. (A reference list can help with #3 & #4; find one here.)
4. Guess longings: Things that are very important to us—our longings, needs, drivers, intentions, values—lie beneath our words and actions. You can make guesses about the ones you think might be there for her/him. Always guess with a question mark, because it is a moment for the speaker to CHECK and get closer to the actual need. (This can be particularly transformative when a complaint, accusation, comparison or judgement is expressed.)
5. Be honest about your availability to listen: Say it if you are not fully available or able to be present (and who IS all of the time?). Here’s what my husband and I say to each other, “Right now, I’ve got my mind on this project and I don’t think I can tear myself away very easily. I should be a lot more available to hear you—which I very much want to do—in about an hour. Can we sit down and talk then?”
6. Hire an NVC-based facilitator/mediator: If both of you are in emotional pain, it means each of you have the need to be heard, and being empathic for the other is super challenging. Someone trained in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) can help as mediator/facilitator for getting key messages passed to each other. He/she can also teach empathic listening and expressing skills that lend to ongoing connection.
You can read one of Cara’s connecting experiences with empathy here. She posted it three years ago on her personal blog.
A True Empathy Story for Inspiration
I posted the following story three years ago on my personal blog. It brings me some lightness regarding my current relationship with my son. . .
My son asked for my signature as he handed me a blank sticky note. He tried to be nonchalant about it, but I stopped what I was doing in order to give this my full attention. I explained that signatures aren’t something people typically give out freely—there’s weight and approval behind it, blah blah. It didn’t take long at all before he gave up hope on the easy route, and he whipped out a folded up piece of paper with typed up questions and scribbled, brief answers he’d provided at school. “You’re supposed to sign this, it’s something stupid.”
Hmm. I opened it up and read what appeared to be his teacher’s attempt to get him to reflect on his behaviour in the class. Evidently there were many other children who were required to fill it out as well. The language she used struck me as, er, rather UNHELPFUL. For example, “How can you avoid this writing punishment next time?” Yet rather than allowing him the space to actually think about his own answer, it was immediately followed with, “Write the rule again.” He wrote obediently, “Don’t talk when I’m not allowed to.” Some reflection! (It’s not even clear WHEN he’s allowed to talk!)
I looked up at him and saw the dread in his eyes, which seemed to say “Here it comes, now she’s going to be frustrated with me, too. Probably lecture me.” He looked both sad and upset. I felt a mountain of compassion for him, and invited him to tell me about his experience in the classroom.
It wasn’t our first conversation about his frustrations, but this conversation opened up some flood gates. I listened very actively by reflecting back what I heard him say, leaving all judgment and advice out of it, not preaching, and also guessing at times what it must be like for him. I could tell it was such a relief to be heard and maybe even understood by a grown-up who for once wasn’t telling him what to do. . . and punishing him if he didn’t.
I heard the longings of his heart, for example things like, “respect, patience, room for mistakes, seeing his efforts.” And, “because the teacher is so frustrated and angry with us, we feel frustration, and it makes it so hard to do what she wants!” When I asked him what “respect” meant to him, he was able to boil it down at some point that it WASN’T about obedience – that much was at least clear. At the point at which I thought he was calm enough, I tried to empathize with the teacher a bit. “Is perhaps quietness / attention in the classroom SO important to her—her idea of a learning environment—that she resorts to requirements of obedience / punishment as the only strategy she knows?“
During all of this, a lot of tears were choked back – as if he didn’t want to let it go. I asked if that is what it is like for him at school . . . holding it together, staying strong, being polite, giving the answers he knows are expected. . . when inside other emotions are at play? This helped him open up and cry, and he went on to say, “yes, and that’s why I so often take it out on my (younger) sister after school, because I just can’t hold it in anymore!”
My compassion for him increased tenfold at that point. He rarely gets that from me after he’s yelled at her or inflicted any pain on her. I made a promise to him that I would try harder—try to remember to at least ask about the bigger picture. What else might be going on—is there pent-up frustration, like a walking volcano? I so want this conversation to stay with me . . . that I always see that vulnerable, beautiful little human being, who’s doing the best he can in a hard world.