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?”

Stranger danger

Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else – doesn’t come naturally to everyone in every situation. While we might flinch if we see someone get slapped – our mirror neurons reacting as if we had been hit – that’s not the same as feeling what they feel. And it turns out that true empathy might even be repressed if the person who is affected is a stranger to us.

A new study out of McGill University demonstrates that the social stress of being around strangers restricts our ability to feel and express empathy for them. Participants were subjected to a painful experience (plunging their arms into ice water) alone, with a friend or with a stranger. The level of pain reported was the same when people were alone or with strangers, but increased when the experience was shared with a friend. Empathizing with the friend’s pain actually increased the amount of pain the participants felt, but they did not have the same reaction when the person across from them was a stranger.

We know that empathy has benefits for society. The Greater Good Science Center lists studies showing that people with empathy are more likely to help others and to be heroic; empathy reduces prejudice, racism and bullying; it increases intimacy in relationships; and it helps managers to foster happier workplaces.New York (2)

At Psychology Today, Guy Winch writes that to build empathy, we have to direct our mind “to a place it does not go of its own accord” —  the other person’s perspective. We have to mindfully “paint the landscape” of that person’s situation in detail, so that we can feel what it’s like to walk in their shoes, look through their eyes. That takes intention and plenty of practice.

The Dalai Lama has said, “On the basis of [shared humanity], you then can learn how to empathize with others beyond your boundaries.” In the McGill study, it took surprisingly little for participants to overcome the boundary of social stress. When the participants spent just 15 minutes playing a video game (Rock Band) together before the experiment, they were able to feel and express empathy for each other during the cold water plunge. Those 15 minutes of shared experience turned strangers into friends, or at least made them familiar enough to lower stress.

Diplomatic efforts and peace talks between countries and factions are often an effort to build familiarity and empathy between people. Sometimes they are successful, like the Camp David Accords, but often they are not. Maybe we need to start smaller and sooner to building familiarity, trust and empathy in order to avoid the kinds of conflict that are so prevalent in the world today.

Jeff Brantley has a practice called “Look deeply at another” that helps alleviate feelings of separation and isolation from others. It starts with mindful breathing, and then selecting an image of someone to focus on. The next steps are:

See the person as if for the first time. Drop all the old stories about him or her. Notice as many details as you can.

Imagine this person moving through the stages of life, as a child, adolescent, adult, in old age, and at death.

See in this person the same wishes and fears everyone has. See the desire for love, safety and peace.

End by releasing the image and noticing your own thoughts and feelings without judgment.IMG_2320

If we look for common values and recognize that most of us want the same basic things from life, we can strengthen our capacity for empathy. Even if we start with something as simple as playing a game together, or saying hello in an elevator, we’re on the right path. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”