Imagine if you opened your front door and found me standing outside, my children huddled behind my pregnant body. Tears are running down my face and I say, “There’s something wrong with my baby! The doctor doesn’t think he’ll live after birth.” What would you do? What would you say?
This is exactly what happened to my friend Sarah. What did she say? Actually, I can’t remember exactly. I do know Sarah's words were just right, because soon I found myself on her sofa, a cup of tea in my hand, telling her the whole story.
I’m sure Sarah didn’t say, “You’re having a bad day!” That would have been such an understatement.
She didn’t say, “You poor thing!” Sympathy isn’t very helpful. I didn’t want to be pitied.
Even though I ended up with a cup of tea, Sarah didn’t say, “A cup of tea will make you feel better.” I wish it could have been that easy.
Nor did she say, “It will be okay.” How could she have known that?”
Or “God never tests us beyond our strength.” Although this was true, I still had to face the suffering ahead.
What Sarah probably said was, “You’re frightened,” because that’s exactly how I was feeling. Her words opened up the floodgates. All my fears came flowing out, along with my tears.
Sarah showed me empathy. She placed herself for a moment in my shoes, and imagined how I was feeling, and then she reflected this back to me. This skill is so important when we are trying to communicate with other people. When we know we have been understood, we open up and start to share. We feel safe. Rapport has been established between the speaker and the listener.
Now we don’t have to keep empathy packed away, waiting for one of those huge stress-filled moments of life, in order to use it. We can use it all the time.
Andy comes home from work and starts to tell me about his day: “How frustrating! You worked so hard and everything went wrong.”
Imogen gets a cold and can’t sing: “I guess you’re very disappointed. I know you were looking forward to that concert so much.”
Gemma-Rose looks grumpy: "It must be so frustrating being the youngest sometimes."
Standing in someone else’s shoes? It seems to me that some people don’t even try to do this. If they did, they might avoid saying so many hurtful words. “How could she have said that? It’s obvious she has never had a similar experience!” She hasn't even tried to imagine what it would be like.
I wonder why some people don’t make the necessary effort. Could they be so self-centred, it hasn’t occurred to them to try and put themselves in another’s place? Or could it be that there are some situations we just don’t want to get too close to? We don’t want to imagine what it would be like to lose a baby, a husband, a job… We don’t really want to know. Those things don’t belong in our world. If we let them in, we are admitting they might happen to us.
Sometimes we get empathy wrong, despite our efforts. We fail to understand how another person is feeling. I think this is okay though. We have tried, which is much better than saying nothing at all. For example, I might say, “You sound disappointed” and my friend might reply, “Not disappointed exactly. I’m worried more than anything.” Even if we have failed to find the correct emotion, we have still opened up an opportunity for the speaker to share her feelings.
I really love it when I hit the nail on the head as far as feelings go. I reflect back a feeling and someone says, “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel!” Have you ever experienced moments like that? They’re magic moments. I understand. And I know it’s so good to feel understood. A connection has been made. The conversation continues…
There are some situations where we can’t find any words at all.
Two weeks after Thomas died, we attended a picnic with a number of other families. I sat silently amongst the chatting women. No one said a word directly to me, but every now and then someone would glance quickly my way, without attempting to make eye contact. I felt so alone and isolated in my grief, so outside the group, even though I was sitting within it.
Tears were threatening to spill from my eyes when another friend arrived. Carol came straight up to me and said, “Sue, I don’t know what to say, but I can’t remain silent as if nothing happened.” She touched my arm and looked into my eyes, and then I did cry. But that was okay. I was allowed to. Someone understood that my pain was beyond words.
Beyond words? But not beyond a touch of the arm, a loving hug. Sometimes a close long hug is the best form of empathy there is.
Please share your own thoughts on empathy. I'd love to hear them!