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What is Empathy?

By January 27, 2020February 12th, 2020Blog post

I went into the post office the other day and someone I know only casually came up to me and starting talking about something horrible going on in her life. I was in a bit of a hurry and really did not want to hear this anyway. What are my choices? Say, “Sorry, I have an appointment, got to run.” Or stand there and pretend to listen while thinking about how I was going to get all my errands done?


Or, give her a little empathy. What is empathy?

“I hear your anger and frustration and your need to talk it out. You deserve to be listened to and I am just in too much of a hurry to be present with you. Is there someone you could call to go for a walk/talk with, or just ask them to listen for a bit? Possibly even writing about it could be helpful.” Be careful not to let them continue with the issue at this point! “Well, I really do have to run. Be well.”


Or if this was someone I really did want to support, I might say, “I’m sorry, but I am on the run and I really want to be present with you around this. Can we make a date for tea this evening or breakfast tomorrow?”


You are taking care of yourself by honoring your boundaries and by being kind to the other person. You are not doing anyone a service by pretending to listen to them when you are really someplace else in your head!


Click here to see information on February 23rd workshop in Paonia, “Moving into Awareness” to learn these skills.


Another example, one that I failed at miserably . . . well on the first pass I was great – lol. But really, my friend and I were on a walk and got waylaid by one of the residents of our local gated community. As he carried on about why we should not be walking on their road my friend disappeared. I could not find her for a while and finally she showed up. As calmly as I could, I told her that I felt hurt and a little angry that she jumped ship when we were being reprimanded and then uncomfortable about not being able to find her. I said that I had a need for communication and consideration and asked her to please tell me where she is going in the future when we are on a walk together. She heard me and I was able to let it go.


Fast forward, same person, months later . . . I won’t go into all the details here because it is a long story. But suffice it to say that on another walk I did not show up when and where she expected to meet me. She felt that I had not communicated clearly with her about our plans. She let loose on me by throwing her hot anger on me like I was a poisonous snake ready to strike. This is where I failed. (I later figured out why, and hopefully will be better in the future.) I silently walked away. Ouch, for her. A bit later we had to get into the car with another friend and drive back to town. It was awkward to say the least.

If I had been able to give her some empathy in the moment it might have sounded like this: “Wow, I really get that you are furious! You expected to find us, or at least have us meet you back here when you were expecting us. Seems like your need for cooperation and mutuality were trampled on. I’m sorry. Is there something I can do to make you feel better right now, or to prevent this from happening in the future?”


I did not have the wherewithal to respond that way in that moment. (And in tense moments we do not, unless we practice!)


What I did do later was give myself some empathy. “Carolyn, you were sick, you were scared (based on past when someone was that angry and throwing it at me), and your need for friendship just took a hard hit. Write about it, talk about it, do whatever it takes to forgive yourself and then hopefully her.”

It did take a while to heal the rift but with empathy on both sides we got there, because we value our friendship.


One last short example of empathy: I said, “I really don’t like winter.” And he said, “I imagine you feel a little sad, and maybe a little lethargic with gray days and cold weather, since I know you have a need for connection with Nature, and it’s hard for you to get in Winter.” Wow, I felt heard. Even if he did not get it quite right, he was present with me. If you he said, “I really like winter. I’m going skiing this weekend.” Or, “You should get out more.” I would feel worse, rather than better for having shared my feelings.


However, after giving empathy, there is room to hear (maybe even share) his excitement about going to Mexico or skiing, or whatever. I can hear how his needs are being met.

Met needs create positive emotions, unmet needs create negative emotions.


That is why learning to give empathy is so essential to building an inclusive community! We begin to understand ourselves and one another better by identifying needs and feelings.


Lean to communicate with love!

Click above to read about an upcoming empathy workshop in Paonia.


Carolyn Ringo

Author Carolyn Ringo

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