Empathy

How frequently in your experience were feelings of anger, either your feelings or your partner’s, caused by lack of communication? Or by thinking thoughts about others that were not necessarily true?  How empathetic do you think you were being in those situations?  Were you able to see other people’s perspectives?

Let’s take a look more at empathy and how this may have shifted those situations for you in the positive.

What Is Empathy?

When you empathize with someone, you imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes.  You take into account what they may be feeling, what their thoughts or perspective may be, you notice what is going on for them. It is the ability to take a step back mentally in a situation with another, and notice what is going on in that person’s life.

Consider the following:

Edgar just arrived home from a long day at work.  His wife, Judith, is at her wits’ end. The dog has dug holes in their newly planted garden and the dishwashing machine has overflowed the kitchen with an onslaught of bubbles.  Edgar’s parents are about to arrive for dinner.

He is upset at the state of the house.  Edgar begins to think, How could Judith allow this to happen? She only needed to keep the house presentable!  He realizes he is in the grips of anger and takes a deep breath to check in with his body, feeling the anger in his shoulders and his jaw.

Now in the present moment, Edgar is  not stuck in his thoughts about what should have happened in the past, instead he sees that Judith is having a rough time.  He notices that she has already begun mopping up the kitchen and he realizes that she must be even more flustered than he is! He also considers the fact that Judith has spent the day working, taking care of their children, dog, and home. Edgar asks calmly how he can help.

In order to be successful in your management of anger, you must be able to see the other person’s side of things.  You must be able to view a situation as objectively as possible. Admittedly, this is one of the most difficult things to do when in the middle of a conflict.

Cultivating Empathy

A big part of mastering empathy is realizing what your thought process is when you are thinking of other people. We always have assumptions in the moment: some of these assumptions may be about the other person’s motive, how we think things will turn out, how we want them to turn out, or assumptions we make about ourselves.   These thoughts may be negative judgments — if they are, let’s call these thoughts criticisms.  Here are some examples of criticizing words:

  • Mean
  • Inconsiderate
  • Stupid
  • Lazy
  • Uncaring

Remember those unmet needs we are all trying to fulfill from the previous section?  Re-examine the list above and think about if those words are actually trying to communicate an unmet need.

Consider the following:

Margaret asks her coworker, James, to pick up some documents and deliver them to their boss.  She specifies the quantity and that they need to be printed in color. Later that day, her boss asks why he received so few documents.

Margaret begins to think, James is so stupid!  I told him how many were needed!  She also thinks her boss is being mean for coming to her instead of asking James about it.  Another thing on my plate! she thinks.

She takes a deep breath and realizes how angry she has gotten.  She re-examines her thoughts.  Of course James isn’t stupid, there was just an unmet need of efficiency. She could have communicated more effectively what needed to be done or she could have made sure he heard her correctly.  And her boss wasn’t being mean, Margaret was experiencing an unmet need of consideration. Switching perspectives provides a quick and sure connection with the people around us.

Converting criticism into unmet needs goes both ways.  Are your needs being met? Are the other person’s?  What were James’s possible unmet needs?  What were her boss’s?  Having an idea about these needs could help Margaret know the best way to communicate in the moment. It could also help her know what steps to take to manage this stressful situation in a healthy way.  If Margaret’s boss’s unmet need is related to productivity, she could reassure him by giving him a clear time to correct this, and inform him of her progress on their task or project. It is important to note however that without effectively communicating how we are thinking or feeling with each other, we never know for certain what another’s needs or perspective truly is.

 Exercise

While not in a conflict, try to avoid using criticizing or negative judgmental words when thinking about people or events.  Think instead of possible unmet needs that may be the underlying cause.  Switch perspectives.  What’s life like in their shoes?  Is the situation different from their perspective?

Look back to the conflicts you have recorded from earlier exercises. Did you have any criticizing thoughts surrounding these situations? How can you translate these negative thoughts into simple, unmet needs?

Take time to really feel your body in both heated and ordinary states. This time, bring special awareness to your breathing but don’t worry about trying to change it.  Just feel it fill your chest and feel it leave.  Is it shallow?  Is it deep?  Notice your breath for ten seconds.  Then for thirty seconds.  If you want, sit with your breathing for as long as possible. How do you feel after this experience? Feel free to record any emotion or sense of calm that follows.

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