The word ‘empathy’ is an abused word. We all like to think we understand it and use it effectively, but do we? Even if we’re aware of the potential of listening closely with empathy, how often do we go beneath the surface conversations? As a therapy professional, you are constantly hearing both comment and criticism. Stopping and taking the time for a few moments to listen yields great rewards. Let’s explore more meaningful ways to use empathy and commit ourselves to its deeper potential as a professional caregiver, a family member, and a friend.
We can never really “be in another person’s shoes” as the cliché goes, but we can remind ourselves of ways to more deeply understand another person’s situation. In your professional life, listening to understand will enable patients and their caregivers to calm down when they realize the care you are taking with them.
Notice that I said ‘understand’. It’s important to remind ourselves that empathy is not agreeing with someone; rather, it is understanding another’s point of view. We can see where that person’s perception is without holding the same perspective. Awareness that we are ‘understanding’ rather than ‘agreeing’ will free us from a desire to push forward our opinions or become defensive. Freedom to simply listen to understand brings us closer, rather than pulling us apart.
Another mistake I catch myself making is to assume empathy means giving a personal example of a similar situation when someone offers a personal story/situation/issue. For example, my friend Rita might say, “I’m really having trouble with Dad. He’s becoming more forgetful, and I’m worried that he’s getting worse.” If I respond by saying, “Oh that happened to my Dad too, but he never developed Alzheimer’s”, I take the focus away from my friend to myself.
So what just happened in this example? I took the attention from my friend, interrupted her story and drew attention to myself. I may have thought I was empathic, but I actually created the opposite impact. In its worst form, this is “one ups man ship”. Making this mistake is very common because we relate what someone else is experiencing to our own situation. A better alternative to show our empathy is to wait and, through questions, draw out the rest of the story. You will have a more complete picture of a patient, family member, or friend’s situation.
Time or our perceived lack of it is at the root of not digging beneath the surface. We live in a staccato society where communication is reduced to ‘tweets’ or cryptic comments. One typical example we see everyday is the greeting “How are you today?” The response is often, “Fine”. If I take this response at its ‘tip of the iceberg’ level, any understanding of my real situation will be lost. Asking “How are you today?” may be a good starter to the conversation but not as the finish to communication. Going deeper with patients is critical to understanding both their medical situation and emotional wellness.
You may be asking, “Are you suggesting I need to communicate this way with everyone?” Absolutely not! Your life would be consumed with nothing but empathy. What I am suggesting is when deeper understanding is required in a caregiving or medical situation, when a patient displays concern, when a friend needs your kind ear, extending the conversation is critical.
A better question might be, “What’s on your mind today?” I find this question to be productive because it often starts with what the person is thinking and then develops to deeper issues related to feelings and values.
Another strategy I use is to identify a visual reminder that will remind you to slow down. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered my mother’s coffee pot, a pot that saw over 40 years of use. Battered and missing a handle, it’s as sturdy as ever and still makes great drip coffee. Over the years, Mom tried a percolator or two but she always came back to her metal drip pot with four simple pieces: a top, a bottom, a lid, and a basket with holes that held ground coffee. Making coffee was slow. The holes in the basket are very tiny (probably one of the secrets of the fine coffee this pot makes), and thus brewing time extends up to 20-25 minutes. While we waited, we usually sat and talked. We had time to hear each other and truly understand what the challenges of the day were and how we felt about them. That pot slowed us down and provided an almost magical opportunity for us to connect.
Just having that pot around and in the cupboard is a visual reminder to slow down. So here’s my thought for you: Find a past or current family ‘relic’ that will remind you how important it is for all of us to understand one another, both in our professional and personal lives.
Click here for more articles by Margery Pabst.