What It's Not
hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing
of understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit
is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear or the mind.
Hence it demands emptiness of all of the faculties. And when
the faculties are empty, the whole being listens. There is
then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that
can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind."
is the basic practice that brings me to compassion. It is ultimately
quite simple, and quite challenging.
a child growing up, and for most of my adulthood, I learned to
listen with my mind... often with a purpose other than
connecting to the person I was with. As I listened to people,
I would focus on the future... "What can I say back?"
or "What can I think of to fix this?" ... Other times
I would go to the past, "What does that remind me of?"
I thought these things I became destracted from the moment, more
disconnected and I less able to understand what the other person
was experiencing. Then I discovered empathy.
Empathy is the exploration of our human experience... our feelings...
our needs... our life energy trying to emerge and guide us. It
is the mindful questioning, the wondering and the genuine curiousity
about what we or someone else are going through.
This may sound strange, but I have witnessed over and over again,
that this search, or wondering, is the stuff of connection on
a deeper plane and sometimes, even an opening of spiritual space.
The ability to be present in this way challenges many of us 21st
century humans, highly trained in thought... as opposed to simply
listening. Often when we are trying to be empathic (even in situations
where we are feeling compassionate), we may say things that do
not connect us with the other person as well as empathy might.
We may choose to have "non-empathic" forms of communication
as part of our lives... and of course, many can serve us wonderfully.
They're just NOT empathy. They tend to fill the space; they do
not tend to open it up. Becoming aware of these "non-empathic"
forms of communication can help make choices to have a deeper
connection when we want it.
To illustrate, below is a quote... something we may hear from
a friend, followed by some examples of habitual, "non-empathic"
responses that can prevent us from moving to a deeper connection.
This is not to say these forms of communication are "wrong".
They're just not empathy. Do any of these responses sound familiar?
"Sometimes I just hate my job. My boss is such a slave
Comparing and One-upping
mine too. MY boss is the worst. She makes going to work a living
hell. I remember a time when..."
when people share what's going on for them, it reminds us about
our situation. We may, without thinking about it, share that experience.
So think about it... Did we just change the subject? Are they
telling us this to elicit our experience? Probably not.
yeah, I know what you mean. You know there's this great book
called How to Love a Boss that Stinks"... or "Yeah,
when my boss does that, I've learned to ..." or "Have
you ever tried speaking to the HR department?"
we hear of someone's pain, we may assume they want us to tell
them how to deal with the situation. It's true, we don't like
to see people we care about in pain, so we want to help them.
Are we doing this to understand what is alive in them or are we
working on a fix? Do we expect them to take our advice? And if
they don't, are we OK with that? Are we being present to their
experience? Probably not.
friend Marshall Rosenberg told me he only gives advice when it
is asked for in writing, notarized and in triplicate. It helps
him stay more present. Of course, advice has a place in life...
It's just not empathy.
nothing. In this economy, you should be thankful you even have
We may have a "knee-jerk" reaction to try to draw someone's
attention to something else in an attempt to "make them feel
better". Can you recall a time when you received this kind
of response and you thought to yourself, "Oh yeah, that's
so true. Thanks for that!"? I can't.
Fixing and Counseling
Calm down. Don't worry. We're gonna get through this. I know it
feels bad now, but I'm sure it will get better. These things always
have a way of working themselves out."
we hear another's pain, we can feel uncomfortable ourselves and
want to somehow fix things. If we check in with ourselves... whose
need is that about?
you poor thing. I'm so upset when I hear about that. I just hate
that boss of yours."
(the sharing of a feeling through an imagined shared experience)
is different than empathy. It's kind of like responding to a drowning
person by jumping into the water and drowning with them. Yes,
it may let them know that you get what is going on for them on
some level. It's just not empathy.
Gathering and Interrogating
tell me, exactly what did he do? Has he done this before? Have
you noticed a pattern here?"
gathering is often a precursor to advising, the warm up to fixing
it all. It may come from a sense of OUR curiosity or our discomfort
with their pain. We may have a genuine interest, to be sure. It's
just not empathy.
as a boss myself, I know sometimes we just need to crack the
whip. He's probably under a lot of stress and doesn't really
mean anything by it. It's really hard to be a boss with all
WE are triggered by someone else's pain. This can be especially
true in situations when we think we are "to blame" or
"responsible". In these moments, we can become more
concerned with our side of the story... OUR need to be understood.
This often results in what I call TTNRS: "two transmitters,
no receivers syndrome". Sometimes we call it "a fight".
It's certainly not empathy.
where else in your life does this show up? Have you ever considered
that this is a pattern for you? Perhaps it's because of your
unfulfilled relationship with your father."
we are so interested in "getting to the bottom of things"
that we forget about the top. Our urge to understand in order
to fix or our discomfort with someone's pain has us rushing to
our brains for answers. Or maybe we have dealt with our own pain
this way. No doubt, there are places in life where analyzing is
important. It's just not empathy.
So What Then? Perhaps Empathy
sure none of us has ever said anything like these examples (heheheh
*wry smile*). OK, I know I have, and likely will again. The difference
now is that when I have the awareness of what I'm doing, I have
the choice to do something else... if I want to.
can recall times, before I developed my empathic skills and my
trust in the power of empathy, when the experience of wanting
to connect and not knowing how left me frustrated, confused and
disconnected against my will.
is where empathy comes in. In the beginning it can be SOOOO hard
to refrain from these habitual ways of thinking and speaking.
Our "robot" kicks in and away we go, like always.
we have a chance to add a new way of being to our lives... a new
skill to create a new level of connection... empathy. Shifting
to this new focus on feelings and needs is rarely easy. I know
for me, it is a life work... one that has given me some of the
most beautiful moments of my life.
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"The Car, the Clubs and the Cab Driver"
few years back, when I was living in Manhattan, I loaned my car,
a station wagon, to a friend who needed it to move into her new
apartment. We had agreed that she would return it early that evening.
I waited and waited, and waited some more. No call, no car. I
drifted to sleep waiting on my couch.
At about 2:30 in the morning, I was awakened by a phone call.
"Thom, I just finished moving and I just don't have the energy
to return the car tonight."
I inquired, "Where did you leave it?"
She informed me that it was parked on a street in the meat packing
district (a less-than safe part of town) with my golf clubs in
plain sight in the back. Ten minutes later, after some serious
self-empathy work (that's a story for another week), I was headed
to rescue my car and my precious toys.
I staggered out into the night and eventually found a cab. I climbed
in and we headed along the edge of Manhattan Island down the West
Side Highway to my car and my clubs. As we drove along side the
Hudson River, we passed the USS Intrepid, a decommissioned battleship
that functions as a floating museum.
From the back seat I could see only the cab driver's eyes reflected
in the rearview mirror. He spoke. "The last time I saw that
ship, I was stationed in Viet Nam."
We made eye contact in the mirror.
I replied, "That must bring up quite a bit for you."
I listened into the silence that followed. More eye contact, more
space. After a time, he spoke again. "When we came back,
everybody hated us."
We sat quietly as the tires thumped rhythmically on the seams
of the road, sounding eerily like a beating heart. We just sat
there, making space for his pain, his need for being seen, for
appreciation, for love. I watched the pain slowly seep into his
spoke. "I imagine that was tough, risking your life like
that. I bet it would have made a big difference to have gotten
even some appreciation."
"Yes... Yes, it would have."
Still seeing only his eyes in the mirror, I watched as the tears
slowly filled his eyes. We continued our ride, without speaking
a word, as we rolled through the empty streets to our destination.
A few minutes later we arrived. I reached through the little glass
hatch and paid the fare... and with compassion and connection
in my heart said a simple "thank you". I swung the door
open and started on my way. From behind me, I heard the sound
of the cab door opening. As I turned, there was my new found friend,
with an outstretched hand and a look of pure relief in his eyes,
walking toward me. "Thank you." We shook hands
I will never forget that ride. Never.
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for the Week
#1 - Increase Your Awareness - See if you can notice yourself
using any of the mentioned "non-empathic", habitual
forms of communication. Later, when you have some time and space,
see if you can imagine what an "empathic" response would
be. What was that person feeling? What was that person needing,
wanting to have more of, or yearning to experience? Check the
and the needs list
for the answer. Now imagine what you might say.
Practice #2 - Play the Empathy/Non-Empathy Game - To do
this practice, work with a partner in person or on the phone.
First, write down a quote, something you might say when you would
want some empathy, like "I'm feeling really stressed about
my finances." Hint - Don't pick something too important
- you'll understand why very soon.
Say your quote to your partner and have them respond with any
of the "non-empathic" forms of communication mentioned
in this week's message. This could be something like, comparing:
"Oh you think your finances are bad? I've been broke for..."
or educating:"The way I see it, there's a lesson in this
for you"... or discounting: "Just relax, you'll be fine"...
or data gathering: "Tell me exactly when this all started."
Next, try saying the same quote again with your partner
giving an empathic response. This could be something like "Are
you feeling scared because you need more peace of mind?"
switch roles so that you
have both had a chance to receive non-empathic responses and
an empathic response that "lands". You'll know it when
you hear it.
For this practice, it may be easier to start out with the simplest
form of empathy, "Are you feeling __________ (feeling from
the feelings list)
because you need more ___________ (need from the needs list)."
© Copyright Thom Bond 2016
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