I daresay that we can all look back on our lives and identify points and incidents when we learnt something so important that it, at least to some significant degree, changed us forever.
One such incident was when I learned to use empathy. That doesn’t sound very exciting, after all empathy is a common human reaction. So let me tell you how it same about.
Back in the ‘60s I was trained as a marriage counsellor. I had felt that I had a pretty broad knowledge of human nature and I had no difficulty in analysing situations so that I could distil and give some excellent advice. What a benefit I was to all my friends!
But I quickly discovered that it was very hard to help anyone before I had looked at his or her situation from his or her point of view. Empathy did not mean sympathy but it did mean understanding, and communicating my understanding, of where a person was coming from. I had to see the situation first through their eyes, and only then through mine.
We were put into little groups to practise this. Another trainee counsellor would imitate a client and, instead of interpreting or giving advice, I had to say “You feel X because Y.” So, for instance, “You feel angry with your husband because he won’t spend enough time with the children.” The client then will know that they have been understood or they will freely refine our understanding if need be.
That sounds too simple and formulaic, and one can argue that all I was doing was reflecting what the client had said but in my own words. But in fact it caused a revolution in my attitude. By really working at grasping my client’s feelings and the reasons for them, I was relating to them quite differently. And I was discovering that when they truly felt understood they were much readier to look at how they could change their behaviour. And much of that attitude spread into my personal life and relationships.
If you think that cannot be true, or think that, if it is true it is negligible. I offer you a challenge.
The next time someone (child, a spouse, a friend?) says something to you about themselves, don’t react as you might automatically but use “You feel…because…” And keep using it until you have the whole picture. Be prepared for a longer conversation – this may be the first time anyone has really listened to your friend and they won’t throw up the opportunity to be heard at last.
This is not a parlour trick. Getting into the habit of being more interested in what the other person has to say than in what we have to say, goes against our egoistic grain. That means that it is a habit which we have to work at every day.