Those who see the infinite value of human connection and focus more and more on it start noticing something: empathy is everywhere. Or, at the very least, it is needed everywhere. So often, the first basic underpinning to doing anything meaningful involving another person or people is to empathize. To find the place where you connect with somebody. Where, as much is it is possible, you can feel what the other person is feeling, and look in the same direction as they are looking. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do; the rewards are so gratifying, and in everything from family relations, to job interviews and the workplace, to everyday negotiations with strangers, a person who is able to empathize brings a great deal of positivity to the table, and other people notice and their behaviors change and become more trusting – even when they aren’t aware that they are noticing such things at all.
Some people are indeed more naturally empathic than others. However, Iempathizing is largely a skill that can be learned. When you want to see where somebody is coming from or what they’re getting at, it’s obviously not lack of desire that makes you unable to relate, but rather lack of knowledge – knowledge of how they must feel, what their point of view is, and most crucially, the skills to get to where you can have a meaningful understanding.
My own life experience is a great example, for I was definitely not a very empathic child and young adult. I could not relate to a lot of the things I saw around me, I didn’t listen well, and I felt that trying to empathize with somebody was not really worth my time, since I wasn’t very good at it! It was a self fulfilling prophecy that only reinforced my sense of self as somebody who was hopelessly clueless in this area, thus I didn’t have to try.
It’s a long story as to how I got to loving the process of empathizing, as I do today. I did have one very key ablity: I was better than most at empathizing with those people that nobody else knew how to empathize with. You know, those weirdos whom nobody could figure out (who in some cases were too scary for people to want to figure out), or those people whose brains just seemed to be wired differently than the rest, who made different sense of the things around them than the “common sense.”
I do remember what it was like at different times in my life when I was thought to be crazy, or not worthy of life, or when I simply had a thought or idea that was too radical for most people to handle. I remember many times in my life being labeled dangerous, perverted, a potential child molester, psychopath, serial killer, abuser, and any other manner of things that nobody would want to be associated with.
Thus, I empathize. With having “unspeakable” or “intolerable” secrets. Everybody who has been part of an extremely scary event in life knows that feeling.
And that is where I want to start, on the subject of empathy. If you want to get really good at empathizing, you must get really good at empathizing with people that are not easily empathizable. The easy part is empathizing when it is “natural” to empathize. What people really need and crave is empathy that is not easy to find – the kind that does not come easy to just anyone. Even supposedly sane, normal people need that kind of empathy – for even “normal” people have abnormal or scary thoughts sometimes, or bad things in their past but they consider to be unforgivable or irredeemable. These thoughts, these psychological burdens – they HURT to have to keep all bottled up inside. To have a knowledge that there are these secret things about you that could completely switch people off from you – things that, if other people knew them about you, they might completely change the way they think about you, or make them stop trusting you, or stop respecting you. This is a very unpleasant thought.
And so how does one get to that point, where [if the following things have not happened to you] they can empathize with somebody who has almost died from an addiction, or has had their family violently wiped out, for example?
The first thing I would say is, do not assume you know what such a person wants. When you don’t know… you don’t know. You can’t really empathize. You can sympathize (a word that used to be a lot more popular in the English language, before “empathize” became a worthier, more popular goal). When you sympathize, you are at the stage where you cannot yet “feel with” the person you are interacting with, but you want to. That’s good. Keep wanting to – you will likely learn a whole lot if you don’t overstep your bounds.
And speaking of learning a whole lot… learning is at the very center of developing empathic skill. No two people’s experiences are exactly the same. No empathy will always be perfect. But you can get closer and closer by…
The question is an amazing social tool that should be used much more often than it is (I dedicated a post to this a while back). Specifically, when trying to empathize with somebody, you must gain a good understanding of how they see things. That person whose family was violently wiped out might not be totally crushed about it, for example, if the family was dysfunctional and abusive. Such a perspective might be foreign to a person who sees family as a solid, positive thing – but if you are going to empathize, you have to be open to seeing points of view that not only differ from your own, but may also seem completely bizarre or irrational, or even offensive, from your point of view. And the more questions you openly ask, taking care not to attach your preconceived ideas about what is good and bad to them, the more you will learn (is scaring another driver while driving your car a good thing? Tell me more…)
Sometimes, things will get weird. Very weird. You might find yourself contemplating things that seem completely out of whack to your value system. But this kind of open-mindedness is what it takes to truly have an empathic mindset… in fact, you actually have a very strong interest, for your own good, in going down these weird/scary psychological paths with people; it can help you tremendously – most of all if you are having dismissive thoughts about what you are reading right now (see my post titled “Adolf Hitler and the 9/11 bombers never had any bad intentions” for more on this).
NOW – there will be times when asking questions may not be desired or appropriate, especially if you are dealing with something very extreme or touchy that brings up strong feelings. Sometimes, the best way to empathize is to empathize with the desire not to talk about something. To remember what it felt like when, at some point in your life, somebody said things that made you feel unpleasant inside, and how you just wished they would shut up and go away. This can be a tough judgment call sometimes, and sometimes the lines are not so clear; you can take somebody into very unpleasant thoughts that they may thank you for later on – it’s all possible.
Perhaps the best way to know when it’s time to stop asking questions is when you encounter resistance; somebody who wants to be empathized with wants you to know what’s going on with them; if you ask questions, you should not get any resistance if all is well. Questions open the door to mutual understanding, and anybody who wants to be understood usually welcomes that open door. But sometimes there is resistance; you ask a question, and… it gets answered halfheartedly, or deflected away, or a discussion pops up around why you asked the question in the first place. If one of these things happens once in a sort of transitory manner and then yields back to open discussion and exchange of views, you’re ok, and you may keep going. But if it’s clear that there’s a sticking point and the questions you have asked have provoked a steady resistance of some sort – then you know it might be wise to pull back, at least for a while.
Why don’t people empathize more often?
Overall, the act of empathizing can be hard for us to engage in because when a person empathizes authentically, it actually involves a certain amount of loss of control. Empathy says to the person receiving it, “take me into these corners of your mind; you be the leader, you show me where the important stuff is, and I will follow your lead.” When a person takes us on such a journey and it leads to very ugly places, the end result can feel burdensome for everyone involved if the person who is trying to empathize becomes mentally unwilling or unable to empathize. The person needing empathy is stuck feeling that (1) they are alone in their feelings, and (2) they just needlessly burdened somebody else with these feelings – and the person trying to empathize can get frustrated and stricken with a sense of inadequacy about not being able to understand something that is important, because it’s important to this other person (once you choose to listen and empathize, that alone makes it important!) The aspiring empathizer then distances themself from the situation, often expressing a sense of annoyance at the things they cannot make sense of, which further heightens the sense of aloneness for the other person. Negative feelings reign supreme all around. No wonder we so often don’t take the time out to empathize - the stakes of failure can be very painful.
When empathy doesn’t work out like we want it to
If you want to be good at empathizing, you also have to be good at the emotional damage control that is necessary when an attempt to empathize goes wrong – which will happen, even to the best of us. The first thing you can do when an attempt to empathize is slipping away is to keep asking questions – as long as the other person is willing to keep answering them. Make your questions more general, if you notice a conflict in points of view (so you feel thankful that you were abused… can abuse be good?). And if you don’t know what to ask, take a look at some of the beliefs that the other person is putting forth and nonjudgmentally ask “why?” (why are you thankful that you were abused?) Very often, “why?” can be a great tool to get to the “uncommon denominator” – the sticking point at which your points of view diverge, which to this point has stopped you from reaching a more satisfactory level of empathy. As long as the situation permits, keep at it with your questions.
Of course, the other side of the coin is that the time may come when, as mentioned before, you effectively cannot ask more questions, because you will not get answers. Sometimes, a conversation meant to lead in a more empathic direction can lead to a deep-seated hurt that is too overwhelming or uncomfortable to talk about, and the conversation can end on an incomplete note. No matter how hard you try, there are no guarantees you will succeed at this kind of thing every time – and that’s ok. If you understand that you are not a “failure” for not being able to truly empathize with someone, often the other person will still be thankful that you tried; they will be freed from feeling guilty for wasting your time and confusing you if you just pleasantly acknowledge that even though you don’t quite get where they’re coming from, you still respect their point of view as being just as valid and worthy of understanding as your own and everyone else’s. Just sharing this basic bit of confirmation can often be very pleasant for a person lonely in their thoughts to contemplate.
This sense of “commonness” or “likeness” – that we are the same in key ways, even as different as we may feel – is the building block to any relationship, from a partner on a project to a significant other or close family member. Empathy is just a deeper level of such a connection, something that breaks through the surface and forges a more lasting, substantial strength: you know you are not crazy. You know it’s ok to feel as you feel. You’re not the only one. Very important stuff.
Get good not just at empathy, but at empathizing
If you want people to understand you and empathize with you when you need it, you must make an effort to give people your understanding. Not simply to understand other people; that’s not enough. You’ve got to give other people your understanding. There is a crucial difference.
I have run across a number of super-empathic people who, rather than reaping the beautiful benefits of being able to see into other people like that, become heartbreakingly lonely. They see everything that’s going on around them, and they do the best they can to make everything around them as gentle and welcoming as possible – and yet, nobody empathizes with them, these super-empaths. They are alone, and they suffer – needlessly.
Silent empathy has its place, sure; I feel this, for example, when I’m on a crowded city bus and somebody is standing next to where I’m sitting. Often, rather than saying “would you like my seat?” or getting up and saying “please, sit here,” I will simply get up and say nothing, even turning away from the seat I just left. I have found that the person is much more likely to sit down if I don’t make a big deal out of it, if I disconnect myself from the “giving” of the seat. And that does give a nice feeling. Empaths everywhere know what I’m talking about – the special feeling that you have given somebody something in such a way that they don’t even have any idea that anything was given up for them, and so they take the gift with no hesitation.
However, much of the time, this kind of indirect approach – throwing out an empathic line and hoping the other person snags it – often yields poor results. Especially with people that do not tend to think on this level of empathy – they tend to miss this stuff completely, engendering disappointment on the part of the empathizer. Remember what I wrote earlier on in this article about empathizing even with those you don’t easily empathize with? This applies also to those “super-empathic” folks who identify with the weak and the underdogs; that sense of allegiance to those who are powerless is very valuable, but often it can’t be put to good active use unless you have the skill to be able to empathize with the strong, the powerful, and the ironheaded, stubborn folks out there as well. What good is it to empathize with people if the vast majority of people don’t even know how willing you are to empathize with them and help them? You must take that empathy and mobilize it to good use, if you want to create stronger, longer-lasting cycles of mutual giving in general.
Those who appear weak and defenseless aren’t the only people in need of empathy. The strong, blustery, controlling types also need empathy – and they must need it really bad, given how much effort they seem to put into making sure eeeeeveryone else around them hears them, respects them, knows what they think, knows what is acceptable to them and unacceptable to them. I know from personal experience. I used to be this way. It all comes from a fear that if we don’t make damn sure that everyone around us knows what time it is for us … we’re going to be forgotten. The most leatherheaded brute has precisely this same fear as the poor cowering soul alone in a corner.
Now the thing is, most people are not one or the other, defenseless or brutish, weak or domineering. Most people are somewhere in the middle. Sometimes, you will have breakthrough moments of empathic vulnerability with them – and then, in the next moment, there is a complete disconnect that leaves a disappointing vacuum. That’s because there is an uneven “consciousness of empathy.” Where one person sees a need for empathy, another person may not see it at all. On that same crowded city bus in which I silently give up my seat to another person, another standing passenger moves his leg to get a more comfortable stance, and very accidentally brushes up against my leg. He immediately says “sorry!” as though I might somehow think that he was trying to annoy me by brushing my leg – or at least that’s how I view his apology. Because for me, it’s quite understood, with no verbal confirmation needed, that the brush was not intended. I often raise my hand up gently as a way of both silently acknowledging the apology and also, if possible, pre-empting it so that the other person knows, without any effort, that I don’t feel inconvenienced at all. Some people, in this situation, believe that some kind of kind gesture of apology is necessary; I don’t. When do I think it’s necessary? Those who are really listening to me will generally figure it out.
However, for my part, it is quite likely I will say so, also, when there is something bothering me that needs resolution. And that’s the thing about empathy: often, it needs open, direct, verbal communication to work properly. When it works without words great! To just be able to seamlessly feel together is a wonderful thing; close relationships of friends, lovers, and spouses nurture so much precisely because they give more of these wordless moments of oneness. But in the hurly-burly of sometimes dozens or even hundreds of social interactions we get into every week, you are setting yourself – and possibly those you interact with – up for great disappointment if you expect nonverbal, feeling empathy to carry the day. Not speaking out the things that need to be spoken will not make things right; on the contrary, leaving things unsaid kills numerous opportunities for empathy – including your own opportunities for empathy toward the person you are not speaking up about things with. Everything not tried is one less opportunity for success.
Empathizing is not simply a one-way street; it is a two-way cycle, a mode of interaction that affects and guides both / all of the participants in the empathic moment. It’s an action-reaction, yin-yang, ongoing type of thing; YOU have an active role in both the giving of empathy to others and the stimulating of such empathy towards yourself – and even if you never again interact with somebody, the effects of your interaction with them, especially if it has involved some depth of vulnerability and deeper sharing, can have a longer-term impact on both of you.
Your life is not a series of isolated moments with no connection to each other; it is a constant stream of film, one in which past events influence the present, and both past and present events will shape the context of the future. Empathizing is not just about isolated moments in which you turn on the empathy machine because it is required, then shut it off till the next time; if you are really going to get good at empathizing, you will find that it becomes a state of mind, in a sense. And not just the part where you empathize, either; this also includes the parts where you ask questions, share your feelings, exchange points of view, disagree, and often make an effort to work out a disagreement together with the other person/people, though such a disagreement may be very unpleasant – the togetherness in the project becomes more important. This is all part of good empathizing. As much as you can, as much as time and safety permit, don’t hold back from this process. The inconvenience and discomfort of today will yield to freedom from regret tomorrow.
There are a lot of building blocks to getting to this depth of connection. Here are a few I have written about:
- Feeling good about yourself, and being centered;
- Knowing how to listen to yourself, so you are aware of your own emotional needs and how to keep yourself stable;
- Getting in touch with your sense of justice;
- Being able to talk about the things that are on your mind;
- Knowing the value of validation and just being there for someone;
- Key things to remember while listening (things we often very easily forget);
- Remembering that strength is often as necessary as humility in delicate situations;
So… Happy New Year I’ve said a whole lot here. It has been a long, hard road for me too, and I’m still traveling it. But I suppose that if there is one touching meaning to my life, something that I find valuable that I can do to better what’s around me, it’s to help my fellow travelers on this road. And even more so if I can help the fellow travelers I come into contact with help other fellow travelers, in turn.
So let’s all do it together. Empathize and be the best support we can to those around us. I and those kind, caring folks around me that I am blessed to know are all on the same side with you.