The Power of Empathy

I was in an empathy practice group in California.

That totally sounds like something that would happen in California, doesn’t it? We sat around with our healing crystals, munching sprouted sunflower seeds and spirulina and practiced being empathetic with one another.

Not quite. There were two Burmese cats who would go from lap to lap for affection throughout the meeting, but raw foods and crystals rarely made an appearance. It is true, though, that we were all committed to the practice of Nonviolent Communication (now often called Compassionate Communication).

Each week, one person would tell about something that was bothering her, and the rest of us would go around the circle, taking turns listening deeply to what the person had to say, and reflecting back their needs and emotions.

No analysis, no judgment, no problem-solving, just reflecting feelings and needs. We said things like, “You feel sad because your need for connection wasn’t met,” or “You feel ecstatic because your needs for recognition and appreciation were met.” If we lapsed into analysis or sympathy, the facilitator brought us back to feelings and needs.

It sounds a little mechanical and a lot silly when I write it out like that, but it was incredibly powerful just to feel heard. It was way outside my comfort zone to interact like this, but I came back week after week because I felt entranced by the power of merely listening and reflecting.

I’ve tried to incorporate this kind of listening into my regular interactions, but it’s so hard not to slip into analysis or judgment (even judgment in favor of the person speaking) or “at least…” distancing language. Outside of the empathy group, the language of reflecting feelings and needs seems extra corny, so I’ve had to get creative. Most times I just let it be part of my internal process while I’m listening, but I’ve used the technique in discussions with friends and in group settings when discussions were getting heated.

Like when I was at a mothers meeting in which there was an escalating disagreement about how covered a woman should be if she’s nursing in public. One mom was voicing a dissenting opinion to that of the rest of the vocal part of the group. I could tell that she wasn’t feeling heard because she’d repeated the same point three or four times,  getting more and more visibly upset with each repetition. So, I went into empathetic listening mode, and just said, “It sounds like you feel very strongly about women covering up when they nurse in public.”

And that was it. The conversation proceeded, but that increasing heat was gone. Even though that was my purpose in saying it, I was shocked that it actually worked.

No matter how many times I’ve seen empathetic listening in action, it always astounds me how well it works, even when I’m the recipient of the empathy. Just this morning, I mentioned in an e-mail to a friend that I had been up much of the night with a vomiting child, and she said, “I know how exhausting it is to be up with a sick kiddo.”

And I started crying.

Just having someone be with me—even remotely—and reflect my unspoken feeling of exhaustion brought such a powerful feeling of relief. The tension of the previous night relaxed, and the tears just flowed with that relief.

I’ve not done as much intentionally empathetic listening lately as I used to. It takes so much energy and is so incredibly hard to step back and just reflect without adding anything else, without making the story about me, sharing what’s happened to me, offering my solutions and opinions. But I’m so glad that this friend reminded me of the power of empathy. I really must make a point of using it again because it works. Even outside of California.

Below is an animation of Brené Brown’s explanation of the difference between empathy and sympathy. I don’t like that it pokes fun at people who, despite their good intentions, engage in practices that distance them from others rather than foster connection, but otherwise, it’s a pretty good explanation.

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Divided into ten “Guideposts,” The Gifts of Imperfection combines Brown’s research on wholehearted living with insights from her personal life as she tries to implement what she’s learned.

This book is somewhere between self-help and memoir, which makes it a bit tough to categorize. I appreciate that Brown avoids the rah-rah optimism of many self-help books. That kind of crap really annoys me, and I would have dropped this book with much haste had I detected that kind of thing in it. Read More

Bookends: April 2013

The first day of each month, I’m posting a summary of what I read the previous month and what I plan to read in the coming month. I would love if this could become a conversation in the comments about what’s on your reading list, too!

I’m not sure where April went. One minute it was March 31 and crocuses, and the next it’s the first of May and azaleas. I’ve done lots of activities with church and with friends and with the kids. I organized a homeschool ASL class. (ASL=American Sign Language. I thought that was common knowledge, but I’m getting a lot of blank stares when I tell people about the class.) I’ve gotten more sleep (overall) than I usually do. All of this means I’ve had a pretty light reading month. Read More

Vulnerability and Shame

My friend Linda shared with me two TED talks by Brené Brown, one about vulnerability and one about shame. I listened to both while my daughter read in her room and my son pretended to nap and I baked cookies and prepared a casserole for a church potluck tonight.

Both talks are excellent and filled with great insights, but this piece from the one about shame really hit home for me:

“As much as I was frustrated about not being able to get my work out to the world, there was a part of me that was working very hard to engineer staying small, staying right under the radar.”

I was talking to another friend on the phone recently, and I said that as much as I’d like to be known and respected as a writer, I’m not sure I really want to be that well known because I don’t really want to feel like I’m in the public eye. I don’t want my face out there. I don’t want that fame or that scrutiny.

And—because she’s a very good friend—my friend said, “Yeah, I’m not going to let you go with that. I’m not going to let you use that excuse.”

I don’t have much more to say about this right now. I just like the talks and thought I’d share them and what was percolating for me (as a person who blogs under a pseudonym) and see what you all think about them.

If you’ve seen these TED talks, what struck you about them? What role do shame and vulnerability play in your life? Do you avoid vulnerability or do you lean into it? (Or do you do a little of each?)

If you haven’t seen the talks, I’ve included links to them in the first sentence of this post, and here they are again:

Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability

Brené Brown: Listening to Shame

Sunday Check-in: Cry Baby

Fine. I admit it: I’m pretty much not following my ROW80 goals at all.

I’m journaling every night and I’m working in 10-20 minutes of sitting meditation most (many? some?) mornings, but I’m not writing from the prompts in The Pen and the Bell. I’m not even writing about writing. Mostly I’m writing about how much I’m exercising and how annoyed I am that I’m not losing the 14 pounds I’ve gained since we moved to New England more than a year ago (and I how I feel like I can’t talk about it because my friends and family think I’m already thin enough even though it’s not about being thin, it’s about not making any worse the diastasis recti, stress incontinence, and varicosities I earned bearing and birthing two big babies) and about how excited I was to receive our homeschool supplies order last week (and how gratified I felt when my daughter said things like, “Wow! Look at this grammar book! This is going to be SO FUN!” and “Mommy? Can we start learning Latin tomorrow?”).

I’m also writing about these little epiphanies I keep having, like that I don’t need to get all POed at people in the grocery store and that my children have never seen me cry.

That last one came about when we were unpacking the Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving.

“Be careful where you’re stepping,” I cautioned my children. “If you step on one of those Christmas lights, the bulb might break and then I’ll cry.”

My children laughed. Why were they laughing? I wondered.

“Kids, have you ever seen me cry?”

They paused for a moment before they answered: “No, Mommy. Grown-ups don’t cry. Only children cry.”

This has been percolating at the edges of my awareness for the past two days, and then this morning I heard Krista Tippett’s interview with Brené Brown on the radio show “On Being.” Brown spoke about the mid-life crisis—or as she calls it, the mid-life unraveling. This is the time when we realize that, in order to have the closeness and authenticity that we crave in our relationships, we’re going to have to break down all of the defenses we’ve built up throughout our lives and allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

I remember the exact moment in sixth grade when I made the conscious choice never to cry in front of people again. It was when our PE teacher accidentally backed into me while demonstrating some volleyball move and elbowed me in the nose. I stood there holding my nose. My classmates wavered in my vision as my eyes filled with tears, but I willed those tears not to fall. I knew I would be called names if I cried. I knew that because I was already the “new kid” and the “smart kid” and the “short kid”. I didn’t want to be the “cry baby,” too.

“Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry,” I repeated to myself. And I didn’t cry. And, with a handful of exceptions, I haven’t cried in front of anyone since. When I was eleven years old, this would have seemed like a great success, but at nearly thirty-six, it feels like a real liability and something that I want to change but am afraid to change, even if I had a clue how to do it. I only know how not to cry (avoid experiencing or thinking about any situation that’s likely to make me cry, and cut myself off emotionally from other people who are crying), not how to let myself cry. Usually when I feel like I need to cry, I watch Steel Magnolias or Terms of Endearment, but I don’t think it’s practical to do that every day.

I don’t really have a conclusion for this blog post. I just thought I’d explain where I’m at right now and how it relates to my current and future ROW80 goals. My goals for next round had been to write at least one short story and to submit that story (or another, or a couple of others) to at least three publications. But I’m starting to think that this vulnerability piece is going to have to play a really big role in that process, and I’m wondering if I need to address it directly or just let it be in the background of my awareness while I try to do the main work of writing and submitting.

Is it even possible to address vulnerability head-on?