In my last post, I shared how I missed an opportunity to practice empathy. Today’s story is the unexpected follow-up:
Songbird, my eight year old daughter, was at her cousin’s house. I texted my mom who was in charge, “When’s a good time for pick up?”
Mom texted back, “one hour.”
Five minutes later I receive another text, “Make that 30 minutes.” Then another message shot back “NOW.”
I head over to find Songbird curled up on the couch weeping – big sad boo hoo tears rolling down her cheeks. Mom starts to explain that cousin doesn’t want to share her new modeling clay – I hear a well-known refrain from across the room –
“It’s too special.”
Meanwhile, steady crying from Songbird.
Now comes the tongue biting as I work to keep these thoughts from tumbling out my mouth:
- It’s okay, you can put that on your Christmas list.
- I’m sure she’ll let you play with it, once she’s had it for a while.
- You’re really tired – it’s not a big deal. Now stop crying.
- Now don’t be that way Songbird, you know you can’t get everything you want.
Instead, having recently steeped myself in what empathy is and is not I wait, refrain from the above garden variety of knee jerk reactions.
Songbird: Yes, I’m really sad!
Me: It seems like your heart hurts.
Songbird: Yes, (boo hooo) it hurts a lot.
Me: I’m sorry sweetie. Let’s say goodbye and go home.
Songbird: (Weep weep) Okay.
Wailing and sobbing continue as we head out to the car – they continue as we drive.
When we arrive home, 10 minutes later, Songbird gets out of the car, singing (makes sense), she skips her way to the door.
All of the usual responses we might use (those I listed above) diminish trust. When we use empathy — in this case, simply acknowledging and naming Songbird’s sadness — we build trust.
Expressing empathy in this situation was simple but not necessarily natural or easy – my bloody tongue is proof!
Simple, how? – all I did was genuinely acknowledge her emotion – naming it and finding a soft place in myself that has known that feeling too.
Not easy, how? I’ll put myself out there and say that although I’ve been teaching Positive Discipline classes for 10 years, empathy is a conscious practice, one that I only feel I’ve recently come to more fully understand.
So, today I’ve made a commitment to myself to practice deliberate empathy – and to expect I’ll make mistakes along the way. I’ll comeback around when I’ve missed the mark and attempt connection through empathy again and again.
According to the work of Theresa Wiseman and Kristin Neff, these five attributes of empathy are key. (You can see the animated video depicting these attributes, narrated by Brené Brown, by clicking the photo above.)
In this list, I’ve included examples of:
1. How I practiced this attribute in my story and
2. Common responses that act as barriers to empathy.
Staying out of judgment:
- Keeping my mouth closed about any internal evaluation I’m making as opposed to saying,
- “I don’t know why your cousin hasn’t learned how to share yet – at least you’re a good girl.”
Taking the other person’s perspective. What’s that experience like for you?
- “You look like your heart hurts.” instead of…
- “Why are you making it such a big deal? Buck up and move on!”
Understanding the emotion you’re hearing. How can I touch within myself something that feels like what my child may be feeling? Check in for clarity by asking questions.
- “You seem really sad.” as opposed to…
- “You really shouldn’t feel that way – you can put modeling clay on your Christmas list.”
Communicating our understanding about the emotion. (This seems like overkill for this example, but you might say…
- “Oh I know I feel sad when I don’t get to explore something I’m really curious about” as opposed to…
- Not understanding that emotion… “It’s really aggravating when people don’t share.”
Practicing mindfulness.: Rather than pushing away an emotion because it’s uncomfortable, feel it and move through it. If we get stuck in the emotion we don’t actually support the other person– boundaries are key to empathy.
- “Your heart really hurts.”
- “It’s very upsetting that your cousin won’t share with you. I’m pissed about it and will talk to her mom as soon as I can.”
Can you feel how the #2 responses edge out the space needed for empathy? Kids need a safe space to have their feelings so they can move through them and eventually let them go.
Thank you for joining me in exploring the complex nature of empathy.
The two big takeaways:
Empathy takes conscious awareness – it isn’t natural, especially with your loved one.
Empathy is not about perfection but rather a practice that you can come back to again and again – it takes being open to being vulnerable to do it.
Take a moment to share your empathy hit or miss in the comments below.
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