Does empathy come easily to you?
You feel for others.
You have loads of compassion.
It’s easy for you to take others’ perspectives.
But what about those racists?
Those woo-woo progressives?
Those bible-thumping born-againers?
Eventually, each of us will bump up against our empathy edges, those places we just don’t want to go, those people we just won’t let into our hearts.
Whenever I find myself tightening up around a particular person, label, diagnosis, word, or group of people, it’s because my relationship with that person, label, diagnoses, word, group, or whatever, is still filled up with pain and distress of my own.
Sometimes it’s because I feel powerless and afraid around “those people.”
Sometimes it’s because I’m stuck in my own disconnecting judgments.
Sometimes it’s because unmetabolized, unintegrated, and fragmented memories are rising to the surface for awareness and healing.
The times that I find myself unable to empathize with another person or group, or I find myself in strong reactivity to a word, phrase, or diagnosis, at least two things are true for me:
1. I need more empathy for myself.
I’m fielding unresolved distress of my own that needs presence and empathy to heal. I slow down and fill up my own buckets first, often drawing on my close community for support and empathy for myself.
2. I need more practice in re-humanizing others.
I can get stuck in my intellectual understanding, my analysis, my interpretations. They feel safer to me when I’m feeling vulnerable, but I know they aren’t the path to healing. I can also find myself correcting, giving advice, explaining, or educating. Again, that’s great when those strategies are aligned with the needs and intentions of any given moment, but those tools will not help open my heart to someone I’m having trouble empathizing with.
At these times, I need more practice actively looking beneath others’ harmful strategies so that I can reconnect with their essential humanity, so that I can interact with them from a place of presence, empowerment, and love.
And what does that look like, you may ask? Here are three essential practices for surfacing empathy anytime, but especially when it’s not coming easily to you:
1. Set your intention.
Consciously and choicefully set your intention on connection instead of control.
2. Train your attention.
Name neutral observations free of judgments and interpretations. What is this person doing or not doing, saying or not saying, that you’d like to address? Stay in the micro-moments. Stay with observable behaviors. Stay away from character-assassinations, diagnoses, and analysis of wrongness.
Embrace emotional energy. Name the feelings, both yours and theirs. Relax into the moment. Attune to the emotional energies arising in the relational field. Don’t shy away from intensity. Welcome aliveness with awareness.
Surface universal needs. Remember that everything that any human is ever doing is their best attempt in that moment to meet a deep need of theirs. The problem is often that they are deeply disconnected from their needs, and so are we. So, we begin by trying to become more aware of the need that they are trying to meet in this harmful or distressing way.
3. Practice presence.
Marshall Rosenberg used to talk about how empathy is a lot like surfing in that we get in touch with the divine life energy flowing through us and others and then we follow and ride the energy. He defined empathy as a quality of embodied presence with another human:
He said, “Empathy, of course, is a special kind of understanding. It’s not an understanding of the head where we just mentally understand what another person says. It’s something far deeper and more precious than that. Empathic connection is an understanding of the heart in which we see the beauty in the other person, the divine energy in the other person, the life that’s alive in them.” (Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 2nd Edition)
While it sounds simple, empathizing with others can be exceedingly difficult and challenging to do.
Old habits kick in.
Our minds want to take over.
Our judgments and fears block our ability to stay present.
Our hearts shut down and our protective systems take over.
And so, we practice.
We set new intentions.
We train for the moment.
We role-play situations with one another.
We try new scripts.
WANT TO GO DEEPER IN THIS WORK?
Here are a few of my programs that might be of interest to you: