Tell me your story

Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes isn’t easy. A mile might seem awfully long if the shoes are too big, too small, not your style, or have holes in them. But the ability to slip into the shoes, the skin, or the story of another person is how we practice empathy and become better communicators.

In a program on clinical empathy at Duke University, oncologists are taught to “Never respond to a feeling with a fact.”  When people are in distress, their ability to listen (and hear what is being said) is compromised. They just want their emotions – fear, sadness, confusion, anger – to be acknowledged. Ideally, the person on the other side of the conversation is adept at recognizing emotions and responding appropriately.

Howard Wainer has written that, “It is absolutely crucial to try to determine what information the receiver needs to hear and not let that be overwhelmed by other things that you may want to tell her…the core of effective communication is empathy.” One Duke-trained doctor asks himself before such encounters, “What is needed here?” The answer is not always facts or solutions.

photoOn my computer monitor, I have a sticky note that says FAVE. It’s left over from a communication workshop I took. The acronym stands for “First Acknowledge, Validate, Empathize”. This is especially helpful to practice when you have a difficult or emotionally charged conversation to handle. Even if you don’t agree with someone, it’s important to listen first and acknowledge what you have heard by paraphrasing or repeating back the speaker’s words. Then validate that their feelings are grounded in a solid premise, that they are entitled to have them. Finally, empathize, let the person know that you can identify with those feelings, either because you have felt them yourself, or you imagine you could.

We all know how frustrating it can be to call a customer service number for product support. But even those interactions, where customers and agents inherently have conflicting needs, can often be improved by the use of empathy work. Researchers who studied employees at a telephone call center found that three types of skills – attentive, affective and cognitive – made the difference. The attentive skills were focused on active listening: repeating back, acknowledging, asking for more information and summarizing what was said. The affective skills dealt with being able to recognize customers’ feelings and identifying with them. The cognitive steps came last – taking the customer’s perspective, trying to provide help, and offering options. The most important part of the interaction was the attentive, being able to listen well enough to know what was needed. Sometimes people don’t want to hear, “I’m sorry”, they just want you to solve the problem. Other times, the apology is very much necessary. Attentiveness is key – “what is needed here?”IMG_2325

Have you ever heard, “You just don’t understand!” from someone you love? It hurts, because relationships matter and understanding is their foundation. Essentially, what each of us really wants is to have our story matter, to be heard, to be understood, to have someone else feel what we feel. Novelist Sue Monk Kidd has written, “Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart.”

Taking the plunge is the challenge for us. Diving into someone’s story, looking out through their eyes, walking in their shoes. Asking, “What is needed here?”

Look up. Reach out.

A student of mine once used the phrase, “the world inside my phone”, to describe the allure of technology. Like gravity, it attracts us with its promise of stimulation, information, affirmation and control. Inside the phone, we can adjust what we see, who we friend, how things look, how we respond, and most importantly, how the world views us. It can be as compulsive as a very powerful drug.

There’s a subway station in Washington where big crowds are often waiting for trains late in the evening. Sometimes when I’m there I just want to shout, “Look up!” because it seems that the majority of people, whether they are alone or with others, are staring down at their phones, lost in that world.Smartphone

I’m probably showing my age, but it troubles me to see this. One reason is physical safety – inattention on a crowded subway platform could lead to accidents, injury or becoming a victim of crime. But there’s also the issue of simple human interaction. Everyone laments those who ignore the actual people they’re with in favor of the device. What about the fact of our decreasing tolerance for interacting with anyone outside of our preferred group, whatever that might be?

Marc J. Dunkelman writes about this trend in his new book, The Vanishing Neighbor. He sees us losing relationships with those in our communities that he refers to as the “middle ring” – people who aren’t as close and familiar to us as family and friends, but are perhaps more than just acquaintances. In other words, people like our neighbors. We keep our inner ring close, and we pay attention to the distant outer ring via social media, but we often neglect the people living right next door, because we don’t have to acknowledge them or depend on them anymore. We can buy almost anything on-line, we can stare at our phones instead of making eye contact as we pass someone on the street, flip through our texts as we stand next to a co-worker in the elevator, maybe we don’t even order from a real person in a restaurant. We can keep all our interactions limited to people we deem to be like us. There’s an app that lets us decide where to shop based on politics. Another app steers us away from “sketchy” people and places. It’s all about control.

But there’s something lost by giving up the richness and randomness, and yes, even the danger, of everyday encounters: The chat with the neighbor in the street, saying hello to someone in an elevator, even arguing with the person who doesn’t agree with you. Of course it’s more comfortable to surround ourselves with the safe and familiar, the good and the beautiful. But just as Georges Braque said that “art is meant to disturb,” life should force us to question, to confront, to improve, to grow, to see inequity and injustice and be motivated to change it, to see suffering and hurt and want to end it. If we stay in the world inside our phones, what are we not seeing?

IMG_0385Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Dave Eggers novel, The Circle, that this digital immersion scares me. Eggers’ fictional Circle is a company that combines all social media, and more, under one roof. It’s as if Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and virtually every app were integrated and controlled by one organization. As the main character becomes more caught up in her job at the Circle, she ultimately sacrifices her family, her old friends, her privacy and her solitude because she so desperately wants to be a part of this far-reaching entity.

 

Our reality probably won’t mimic this fiction, but there are enough similarities already to give us pause. Before we become the tools of our tools (to paraphrase Thoreau), let’s not forget how to use the powerful apps we were born with. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? Step outside the circle. Be surprised.

 

 

 

Lucky in love

What is the essence of a strong, fulfilling relationship? Experts agree that it should make you feel happy and loved, safe and secure, respected, and respectful. It’s one where you can be yourself, or as Erich Fromm said, you unite “with another while still remaining an individual.”holding_hands1

My husband and I are celebrating our anniversary this week, and it makes me reflect on why our marriage has lasted as long as it has. How much was luck, and how much hard work?

Since 2004, the Cornell Legacy Project has been collecting “practical advice” from a large group of people over 70. They’re asked for their counsel on different aspects of life, such as raising children, living through wars, and dealing with loss.  When they were asked about what makes a successful marriage, the top responses were:

  1. Marry someone who is like you in their core values, and don’t think you can change them after marriage.
  2. Friendship is as important as romantic love in lifelong relationships.
  3. Don’t keep score. Marriage isn’t always a 50-50 proposition. The key to success is that both partners try to give more than they take.
  4. Talk to each other.
  5. Don’t just commit to your partner; commit to marriage itself and take it seriously.

The first two tips are about choosing your partner. Marrying someone who shares your values and can be your best friend allows you to take the leap of faith that true intimacy requires. The word intimacy comes from the Latin word meaning “within”, and that willingness to let someone else inside our hearts requires trust. That’s the first building block.

Intimacy is important, but it’s not enough. That’s why I think #5 – commitment — comes next. There has to be a sense of mutual obligation – we’re in this together and we both have to make it work. Both people have to set the intention that they are going to make the relationship a priority.

But once the choice is made and the intention is set, sustaining any relationship over the long term requires attention and effort. It has to be cultivated like a garden so that it thrives. I agree with the advice that marriage isn’t always 50-50. At any given time, someone is going to be giving more than the other, and there are times when you have to make an effort even when you don’t have the energy for it. You just hope that it balances out in the end, that you feel as if the relationship has enriched your life well beyond what you’ve put into it.wildflowers 3

Communication is the other vital element. The elders say “talk to each other”, but I would suggest learning to listen more than you talk. Listen to understand instead of listening just to reply. Listen with empathy. Don’t react quickly, but respond thoughtfully. Apply mindfulness practices to your relationship.

Ultimately, the support that comes from strong relationships is a powerful component of staying healthy, both physically and mentally. Having someone to confide in, to touch, and to provide companionship leads to a better, longer life. It has certainly made my life richer and more meaningful. So has my marriage required hard work? Definitely. But at the same time, I feel really lucky.