A Needed Skill
Empathy matters. To be seen, heard, and understood meets our deepest human need to be known and accepted for who we are as a person rather than for what we do or what we can offer or what we can afford. If we attempt to follow the golden rule and treat others as we want to be treated, empathy is a great place to start. With all that’s going on in the world today, empathy is a needed skill – for parents, for partners, for co-workers, for employers, for friends. Because it matters, let’s talk about empathy.
I first learned about the importance of empathy in a Love & Logic Parenting class. The Love & Logic approach to parenting assumes the presence of an empathic connection. In fact, the class recommends waiting to use any new skill until empathy is firmly in place. Really? When I’m angry with my kids, I’m supposed to start with empathy? I’ve taught Love & Logic Parenting for 10 years. I’m still working on empathy.
Why is Empathy Important?
When someone listens intently to what I have to say and understands what matters to me well enough to re-state my feelings in a way that makes sense to me, I feel known. I feel accepted. I feel like I have someone in my corner. And when that happens, I feel like I can take on the world.
I mentioned that empathy has been (and continues to be) an area of growth for me. When my kids were in high school, the fact that I was working to develop empathy turned out to be a lifesaver. At one point my daughter and I were disagreeing about something (I can’t remember what it was). I was working to see things from another’s perspective at the time, so I tried to imagine what her day might have been like. I remembered what it was like to be in high school. I remembered the intensity of my own emotions as a teen. And I got it. I could see her point. I still needed to hold my boundary as a parent, but I understood where she was coming from. I could see the need beneath the behavior. And that allowed me to be attentive to our relationship while also communicating parental limits.
It turns out that empathy is valuable in marriage too. One day I met my husband at the door as he returned from work with a long list of things I needed him to do. I wasn’t particularly happy with the tone of his response to my request. But because I had been studying the value of empathy, I considered what it was like to be in his shoes.
I imagined myself working hard all day and responding to the needs of clients. I imagined myself getting in my car and spending an hour in bumper to bumper traffic before finally arriving home. I imagined walking in the door of my home, looking for a respite, grateful for a few moments to relax… only to receive a list of new things that I needed to handle. I suddenly understood the reason for his tone.
Energy and Information
In both cases empathy didn’t change what needed to happen, but it did change the energy with which those needs were communicated. By working to develop an empathic response, I could both express my needs and see, hear, and understand the needs of the person in front of me. Empathy honors the connection. Empathy respects the relationship.
When working to develop empathic responses, words are optional. A nod of the head, eye contact, a well-timed “uh huh” all suggest that you’re paying attention. And remember that empathy doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with the statement, request, or action. Rather empathy affirms you understand the feeling that goes along with the statement, request, or action.
- “I understand your frustration. I can see how not getting to spend time with your friends so you can get your work done doesn’t feel very good right now. I get that.”
- “I can see how important this project is to you. You have worked so hard on it.”
- “I get why you’d want me to do that for you. It makes sense to me.”
This week try your own experiments with your family, with your co-workers, with your neighbors, or with the random person you encounter while running errands.
- Try seeing them.
- Try listening to them.
- Try imagining the need that’s underneath the behavior.
- Consider trying to understand the context out of which that person is acting.
- Be curious and remain open until you have a clear understanding of where that person is coming from.
- Seek to understand rather than to be understood.
- Pay attention to the energy between you.
How does it feel inside you? How does your experiment influence your connection? the relationship? what happened?