Empathy is a wonderful trait to have. It has been described as leaning into another person so we can feel what they feel. Empathy is learning to see things through another's eyes rather than seeing it through ours. As an empathetic person, we provide space for another to share their feelings without judgment or ridicule.
People try to be empathetic by trying to connect their story with ours. "I can relate to that because I have had a similar experience." According to Stephen Covey, author of Everyday Greatness, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, rather they listen with the intent to share their own stories." He goes on to say that when people say, "I understand your pain" or "I can relate to that," it is usually a prelude to offering advice.
How many times have we said "I can relate to that" and then proceeded to share our similar experience? We think we are being helpful by telling the other person we are sharing the same shoes of pain. This may be, but often it interrupts the other person from telling their story. It takes the focus off of them and puts it on us.
It was a very difficult time for me when my father died. He died without any warning. It was as though my world had been turned upside down. A part of my identity and security system had been uprooted. I felt anxious as well as sad. Oh, yes, and there was the guilt. My mind went to an experience just before he died where I was upset with him for running our boat into a sand bar. Of course, when I heard he had died, my mind went right to that episode. While Dad's dying was painful, something good happened to me.
How many times have we said,
"I can relate to that" and then proceeded
to share our similar experience?
I found that when I would visit or talk with someone who had lost a loved one, I could connect to their feelings. I knew what it felt like to be an orphan as an adult. I did not talk them out of their grieving but used my material to help them process their many feelings. For example, I asked one person who had recently lost their parent if they felt like an orphan. "Oh, yes. I felt like a child being abandoned on the doorstep," was her reply. We need to use the authority of our own feelings to help others process theirs.
Dr. William E. Austin is a licensed psychotherapist and holds a Doctor of Divinity degree. He is a therapist with Tidewater Pastoral Counseling Services . He is well known for his warmth and sense of humor. His book, Creating Our Safe Place - Articles on Healthy Relationships, can be purchased through www.amazon.com.
Tidewater Pastoral Counseling: 623-2700