Empathy can be such a natural, spontaneous process that we often forget that it is also a skill.
When we hear a story that is similar to our own experiences, we feel a kinship with the storyteller. We often relive the emotions that came with our own, similar story.
How, then, do we relate to people whose lived experiences and understanding of the world are vastly different from our own? Can we only relate when we are on common ground?
I was faced with these very questions as I was talking to my friend the other day.
My friend, let’s call him Matt, got into an argument with a lady at a grocery store a while ago. I don’t know the details, I think she cut him off in line or something, they both got very angry during the interaction, and it escalated until he spat on her.
So, when he called me to complain that his assault conviction, although minor enough that he only had to do a little community service, also meant that he could not keep a gun in his home for the next few years, I wasn’t exactly feeling sympathetic.
What I wanted to say to Matt was: “Who cares? This is such an inconsequential thing to lose! You had those guns locked away in a safe for years and barely touched them, so it does not change your day-to-day life in the least! Anyhow, clearly you aren’t in control of your anger and I don’t think you should have guns!”
Of course, I could not tell him any of this. “Who cares?” Well, Matt does, and my saying he shouldn’t wouldn’t change that. He was familiar with that script, and had already heard it from everyone else he had talked to about this. He was reaching out because he was looking for some understanding.
So why not just let Matt feel all of this alone? Even though I would like Matt to be more in control of how he interacts with people in the future, leaving him to suffer in his feelings wouldn’t have accomplished that. People who are caught in a state of suffering are far more likely to lash out at others.
When we are alone in our feelings, it can completely eclipse the rest of our thoughts. Our emotions are warnings from our subconscious; to some extent, what our emotions are doing is telling us “this is how you will feel when this set of circumstances follows its natural course.”
We may not see the shape of the river we are floating down, but our subconscious is pretty sure it remembers seeing that map. When our subconscious is shouting “DANGER! WATERFALL AHEAD!”, if other people can’t empathize, it feels like you’re in a raft about to go over, and people on the shore are shouting at you that waterfalls don’t exist.
I wanted to tell him that he was being ridiculous and dramatic, but I knew that wasn’t coming from a place of empathy. How though, can I empathize with someone who I believe to be in the wrong? He needed to grieve the decision, and I was having a hard time meeting him there.
I realized that what I needed was to figure out where my empathy access point was, so instead of telling Matt what I thought, I asked questions, and I listened.
In a way, what Matt was looking for was permission to feel bad about the loss. It felt big to him even though everyone around him said it should feel small. He needed to grieve for the loss of control over his own life, and process how sad that made him.
I realized that I could connect to his feeling of losing control. The core of Matt’s discomfort was vulnerability, and that’s a feeling I know well.
If we recognize empathy as something we sometimes have to work at to access, we are able to connect to people in a more meaningful way. Having Empathy means listening fully and probing to understand the underlying issues. When Matt was talking about losing his guns, I didn’t see the waterfall. When we talked about how scary it is to feel like you aren’t in control of your own life, I wasn’t able to stop the raft, but I was able to hold his hand and say “I’ve been down this waterfall before, and in fact, you have too. It isn’t as big as it looks.”
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