Empathy as a conduit to Connection

Mar 23 2018

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Thich Nhat Hahn

This week, in preparation for next Tuesday's final Mindful Play Session, I've been reconnecting with my Work In Progress research from last year. My third and final show explored the theme of 'connection' which is also the theme for next week's Mindful Play.

The theme that keeps coming up is the importance of empathy as a conduit to connection. 

But what is empathy? I hear you ask. Here's a handy little animation that might help you get started on finding your answer:

The Lifehacker video defines Empathy as "an active attempt to understand another person's perspective, their emotions and in essence their reality." Nursing scholar, Teresa Wiseman (cited in the Brene Brown video below) adds to this definition, describing the 4 qualities of empathy as:

  • perspective taking

  • staying out of judgement

  • recognising emotion in other people

  • communicating back to the person what you've recognised

There's a crucial difference between empathy and sympathy; as shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown explains in this little RSA video:

Brene Brown states in the above video: "Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection." Wiseman's definition tells us that empathy is a willingness to non-judgmentally jump into someone else's world and find out how life is for them and to communicate back what we find; if you want to offer an empathetic response, there's no need to find solutions or make anything better, as Thich Nhat Hahn explains in his lettuce-farming analogy at the top of this blog, the only thing required with empathy is understanding

During my Non-Violent Communication (NVC) foundation training, we were given the task of role playing non-empathetic responses to a series of fictional sharings. Our prompt list included things like: 

  • offering advice.
  • consoling (the "at least...." response, as described in Brene Brown's video, above).
  • one-up-man-ship (bringing the focus back to yourself and sharing a worse or better story from your own life).

I experienced this exercise as a hilarious taboo-buster and it's stayed with me ever since. It's remarkable how easy it is to slip into these responses and how tricky it can feel to let people have their own experiences and travel alongside them in the great unknown. But whenever I manage to hold my nerve as a teacher, therapist, partner or friend, transformation invariably happens

As the lifehacker video explains, without empathy, it's easy to cast other people as:

  • the problem 
  • the other 
  • the enemy

It's clear to me that this is how wars begin! Thich Nhat Hahn's lettuce-loving quote backs this up; "Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument."  Empathy is the key to melting barriers and increasing connection; as I have seen, time and time again through my NVC training. 

I'm currently attending a six week NVC course on Deepening Empathy with Seed of Peace. Last week, we practiced the steps to empathising first with ourselves, before taking our focus out to others. NVC teaches the key to empathy is in understanding, acknowledging and attending to the feelings and needs beneath our own and other people's behaviour. I've found that when I am aware of my own feelings and needs, it is easy to spot potential external triggers (things that might lead me towards disconnect / self-destruct) and respond to them with compassion and wisdom. When I jump out of my own embodied experience and into blame and guilt, I am more likely to have knee-jerk reactions (which invariably lead to disconnect / self-destruct).

Last week's NVC class reminded me about the importance of not only empathising with myself, but also empathising with the other before expressing myself. I watched a few members of my group role-playing difficult conversations from their real lives; first they empathised with themselves, to find out what unacknowledged feelings and unmet needs might be fuelling their own reaction, next they empathised with the other, imagining what unacknowledged feelings and unmet needs might be driving their reaction. Only then did they express what needed to be expressed. The result was amazing! Both parties were speaking and listening deeply from the heart and the connection was palpable. I have seen this transformation happen so many times, with NVC. It definitely takes more effort at first to communicate this way, but when we can allow empathy to be at the heart of our communication, magic happens. 

Brene Brown states in her video: "Empathy is a choice and it's a vulnerable choice, because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling." I agree with this. Underpinning all my learning in NVC and elsewhere for the last few years has been learning to tolerate, empathise with and love my own vulnerability, because connection is only possible when she (the vulnerable part of me) feels safe enough.

The Lifehacker video offers this helpful advice on how to develop empathy:

  • be observant of others - be curious about people's state of being rather than judging or labelling
  • use active listening - slow down, ask follow up questions, try to understand their emotional state and the deeper motivations behind their statements.
  • open up - empathy is a two way street

I'd like to add to that, with some invitations for self-empathy / self-care:

  • be compassionately observant of yourself - be curious about your own state of being rather than judging or labelling, is it possible to receive yourself just as you are?
  • use active listening to yourself- slow down, tune in, make space to listen to yourself, feel into your body, sensations, emotions, and sense the needs beneath. What do you need right now?
  • open up to receiving empathy from others, practice asking for what you need, be clear, be specific and be prepared to be surprised about who or what meets your request. 

There's only one more Mindful Play Session, it's on the theme of Connection and it's on March 27th. You're welcome to join us. Info here.

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