Many people view empathy as an action one engages in to help another person. We tend to think of empathy as something that we access or use when someone comes to us in times of distress or need.
This is true but not even half the story.
Empathy is something I work with a lot when it comes to interpersonal effectiveness and anger management. It is an attitude, way of thinking and set of behaviors that can increase our effectiveness in handling a situation. It gives us a better opportunity to influence a person or situation in ways that benefit us. It can also provide us with the ability to reduce the intensity of potentially harmful emotions that drive us to react in ways that can create bigger problems.
Consider the following scenario:
Luke is sitting quietly at his favorite lunch spot eating a sandwich. His supervisor Darth walks into the cafe and they both notice each other’s presence.
Even before they saw each other, like they could feel each other in the room. Weird. Right?
Anyway, Luke isn’t very pleased with having Darth as a supervisor. Darth lives at his job, is a perfectionist and can be rather cruel when expectations aren’t met. Darth walks up to Luke and says, “I’m glad I caught you before you left today. I need the team to come in on Saturday and Sunday to finish organizing the supply closet. “
Darth pauses then adds, “By the way, you need to do a better job at matching your ties with your outfits.”
“This, coming from a guy who wears a cape and helmet to an office job every day.” Luke thinks to himself
Darth, without waiting for Luke’s reply, abruptly turns away and goes to the counter to order his lunch.
Luke begins to have some other thoughts, thoughts we could all imagine having after that sort of exchange
“What an a-hole”
“There’s no way I’m doing this”
“Who does this guy think he is, my father?”
Empathy involves asking a different set of questions than we may be accustomed to in order to construct a different sort of narrative.
“What kind of experiences would turn someone into the kind of person Darth turned out to be?”
“What kind of life does a person like Darth live?”
“What are the emotional and social consequences to acting this way?”
These questions quell the demand for justice (because there are consequences for people’s behaviors even though they may not be evident to everyone) , makes the issue less about who we are and diffuses some of the anger we may hold because we are looking at the behavior within a larger context.
I’m not saying Luke should excuse Darth’s behavior and give him what he wants. In fact, what empathy can do for Luke is put him in a better frame of mind to react to Darth. It can help Luke think about solving the problem more strategically versus reacting to it emotionally.
Our relationships with others have a big impact on how we feel and think about ourselves and the world around us in our day to day life. We are not in control of how others behave. We can control the power we give those behaviors in our thinking and our actions. When we act from a place of pure emotion when faced with relationship distress we run the risk of acting in a way that can hurt us. Sometimes we place our own credibility into question while potentially intensifying the poor behaviors of the other person.
This does not mean we become the guest therapist on Oprah or a welcome mat. It does mean taking a step closer in viewing the demands others make of us and those we make of others from a place of positional intensity (a product of reason) vs. emotional intensity (a multilayered wild card mess that is not only connected to the thing in front of you but the 3,000 events that you experienced leading up to that thing in front of you). We’ll pick up on those concepts another time.