When you have a personal crisis or get flooded emotionally, do you have backup? Of course self-soothing (or self-care) is an invaluable skill. And then there are moments when all the deep breaths, visualizations of happy puppies, or rubbing your bellybutton clockwise three times while chanting in Sanskrit language don’t work. At that point, an empathic friend or family member can be like a parachute. And in reaching out, the clearer you can be with them about your needs and requests in that moment, the better chance you have of getting the support that will best serve you.
Empathy can be like oxygen for someone in the midst of emotional distress or challenge. Empathic support is all about keeping the focus on the person who originally requested the support. That could be saying something like the following: “Gosh, you sound like you feel really upset and discouraged and wanting support right now. Is that what is going on for you?” The listener reflects back what they are hearing or their best guess as to what might be going on in the other person. It could also include some reassurance, but only after the person who is seeking support begins to shift their emotional state from having received enough empathy..
This is very different from receiving sympathy, which could sound something like this: “I know exactly what you mean. I had the same thing happen to me yesterday. I feel sorry for you.”
An “empathy partner” is someone who has stated that they are willing to be available for listening and reflecting back what they are hearing with love and compassion. Here is how an empathy partner (let’s call them Angie in the example below) might be available for another person who is needing it (I call that person Joe below).
Joe: Hi Angie. Wow, my truck just ran over a family of anteaters and I am completely freaking out. Do you have a few minutes for some empathy?
[note note_color=”#fdfdf1″]So Joe has something happen and he is needing some empathy. Joe calls Angie, asking for some empathic support, knowing that she has said to Joe that she is willing to be an empathy partner. That doesn’t mean that Angie always drops everything whenever Joe calls for empathy. She may or may not have availability in the moment around her own responsibilities, needs and desires. When Joe calls, Angie must be clear whether or not she is available, or maybe that she just has a few minutes, or will call Joe back in 10 minutes or an hour or whenever. That may or may not work for Joe. And ultimately his needs are his responsibility, so ideally he will have multiple strategies to getting his needs for empathy, support, etc. met. When Angie says that she is willing to be available for Joe, Angie’s role is just to listen. Angie is willing to be there for Joe out of the knowing that it gives her something too – maybe it meets her need for contribution.[/note]
Angie: Hey Joe. Sure, I can take some time right now. Tell me what happened and what’s going on for you.
Joe: Oh jeez, I just completely mowed down the mom and three baby anteaters. They were just standing there, licking ants off a dead crow. I thought they were going to move, but they didn’t, then they did at the last minute and I swerved right into them. It was horrible. I just killed them all. Oh my (crying).
Angie: Wow, friend. Sounds like you are feeling upset out of your care for the anteaters.
[note note_color=”#fdfdf1″] Whether Joe’s feelings and needs are clear or not, Angie can guess at what feelings and needs she is seeing in Joe. Angie does NOT try to change or fix Joe’s feelings or begin strategizing, until Joe has moved through the need for empathy and support properly. [/note]
Joe: Well yeah! Of course I am. Wouldn’t you? I mean, they were so cute and fuzzy and just doing their thing. I can’t believe I didn’t slow down more or just stop until they moved.
Angie: You wish you had just stopped, right? Tell me more.
Joe: Jeez – yes – I have never even seen anteaters around here before. How am I supposed to know how they are going to behave? I am running late for my colonoscopy, for crying out loud. I didn’t want to stop, plus there was a huge truck right on my tail so I couldn’t slam on my brakes.
Angie: I really get it Joe. You were feeling the stress of keeping your appointment and all of a sudden, it all went really wrong. You are such a caring person. You would never hurt a creature on purpose, right?
Joe: Plus the fact that my mother-in-law is with me, so she can drive me home from my appointment, but she she won’t shutup! She just keeps saying over and over, “I can’t believe you didn’t stop!”
Angie: Yeah – it sounds like it’s hard for you to be around her right now given the state she is in. I wonder if her judgments are reinforcing your own, and that’s just really hard. Is that right? Joe: Angie, I so appreciate you being there. I just feel so bad about the poor anteaters.
Angie: (with care and compassion): Mm hmm. Yeah….
Joe: And I was just rushing!
Angie: I get it, Joe. You were just in a hurry, trying to get to your colonoscopy appointment that you might have already had some anxiety around. Yes?
Joe: Right? I didn’t even think about that adding to the situation. Wow, Angie. This is so great to have you help me peel back the layers of this crazy onion right now. I don’t know what I would do without you right now.
[note note_color=”#fdfdf1″] Joe is beginning to shift now, and Angie meets his expression of gratitude. [/note]
Angie: You are so welcome, friend. It feels good to be here for youright now.
Joe: Whew! I don’t know what to do next.
[note note_color=”#fdfdf1″] Only after Joe has landed safely from his emotional upset is it valuable to move into developing strategies and completing the conversation. [/note]
Angie: Are you open to a couple of suggestions?
[note note_color=”#fdfdf1″] Angie double checks that Joe is open to moving to strategies. [/note]
Angie: First, you might want to call your doctor to let them know you are running late. I would even be willing to do that for you if you want. And then you will need to find a way to work with your mother-in-law. You know her better than I do. Do you think you can give her some empathy right now for what she just went through along with you?
[note note_color=”#fdfdf1″] And so they move together to resolve the situation, with actionable requests that can be accomplished right now by either Joe or Angie. [/note]
When we take the time to really let someone get heard and supported, we provide an invaluable service that can lead to true resolution, trust-building and connection. These are the conditions under which personal transformation thrives. These are the conditions under which we can make a real difference in the lives of others and in the world.
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