You Can Never Go Wrong When You Revert to Genuine Empathy
When emotions run high, and anger and fear are at the surface, our natural need to connect and relate to others can become short-circuited. Instead of collaborating, we may get protective and positional. High emotions are a natural response to uncertain situations. Toxic stress and trauma on the individual and community-wide levels can cause our ability to process sensations, emotions, meaning, and problem-solving to short circuit. The irony is that we need a healthy connection most when we find ourselves most deregulated and challenged to connect in healthy and life-giving ways. In other words, when we are stressed, sad, and angry is when we most need support and when it may be the most challenging time to ask for it. This predictable pattern of rupture and isolation occurs in individuals, families, organizations, communities, states, regions, nations…., and so on. The more healthy coping strategies we practice and have in place to deal with hard/traumatic situations, the more resilient we are individually and collectively.
Having empathy for others is good during ordinary times and essential under challenging situations. The desire and ability to accurately understand how others are experiencing the world is foundational to resilience. Dr. William Miller, a New Mexico local, healer, teacher, and scholar and author, describes the core aspects of practicing empathy in his book Lovingkindness: Realizing and Practicing Your True Self. The desire to understand others to support and care for each other is key but NOT sufficient. We must also be able to accurately understand and respect the way that others experience the world. The desire to understand others without the commitment to do so in a way that serves them can become manipulative and self-serving. The desire to understand others without the capacity to do so accurately is also hurtful. People need to be seen, heard, and understood. If we want more resilient people, relationships, and communities from familial relationships to vibrant democracies, the exercise of empathy informed by critical thinking is essential.
Accurate empathy as we navigate coordination and problem-solving at all levels doesn’t require superhuman powers of mind reading. Two simple strategies we can practice that can increase empathy are:
- Listening- make space to slow down, listen, and try to understand what others are saying. Listen not to formulate a response but to build an accurate understanding of where the other person is coming from. This kind of listening doesn’t require the listener to agree or disagree. Instead, to listen with empathy is to try to understand the needs, values, experiences, and world view of the person to whom we are listening.
- Gentle Questioning- if someone keeps repeating their needs or point of view, they may not feel heard or understood. Gentle questions are a way to build understanding of some else’s needs and interests supportively. Some questioning is NOT gentle and get’s people into a more defensive position or state. “What were you thinking?” or “Why are you looking at it like that?” don’t build empathy or understanding. Instead, stating back or paraphrasing your understanding and asking, “Am I getting it? What else do you want me to understand?” or “Where do you see opportunities for us both to get what we need by working together?” can help deepen empathy, understanding, and collaboration.