The word empathy brings a smile to the face of anyone in my family. It’s an inside joke. We all took the StrengthFinders test sometime back and shared the results with each other. Without calling names or confessing anything, let’s just say empathy is not found in abundance in our hard-charging tribe.
Twice in the last month, I’ve heard my friend Reggie Joiner speak about empathy. I think he has the most useful definition I’ve heard…
Empathy: to pause your thoughts and feelings long enough to engage with the thoughts and feelings of another person.
Simple to say, hard to do. For starters, we live in our own world. We’re constantly thinking and feeling…we can’t help it. We’re me-focused, looking out for ourselves, making plans for our next meeting, snack, phone call, etc. Focus is fleeting, and after the first few seconds of a conversation, after a hello, a handshake, and the requisite “how are you?” we’re done. Our minds slip back to our agenda, our thoughts, and our feelings. The other person felt cared for for a second, but it left as quickly as it came.
An empathetic person pauses. Stops. Focuses. Actually pays attention. Actually engages. Actually listens to the other person and connects with what they’re saying and feeling. This requires selflessness. It requires patience. It requires love. In our ultra-busy lives, listening is loving. When we pause and truly listen to another person, when we take the time to care by engaging with their lives, they feel that love and the relationship gets stronger.
I’ve been practicing this for the last couple of weeks. It’s pretty easy at first, pausing, engaging, and truly listening. Here’s how one conversation went…
Me: “Hey man, it’s great to see you. How’ve you been?”
They: “I’m struggling. Going through a tough patch all the way around.”
Now here’s the pivot point. I call it the second question…
Me: “Yeah I hear you. It’s been a little difficult around my house too.”
I blew it! I chose to self-reference. To talk about myself. I may have thought I was empathizing, but I wasn’t. Instead of continuing the conversation, I ended it. The next response was small talk and within a few seconds, it was over we were on our way. What if I’d made the second question a follow-up and stayed in their frame of reference? Something like…
Me: “A tough patch? Wow, sounds like you’re really hurting. What’s going on?”
Now my friend would feel like I really care. If I’d paused my world and asked to enter his, he’d have felt loved and valued because I invested the time and energy to show I cared about him. To be empathetic.
Try it. With every person and in every conversation this week! Make the second question about them. Put them first. Stay with their thoughts and feelings, rather than switching back to yourself! This is moment-by-moment loving your neighbor.
Scripture: “The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:31)
Mentor Tip: A big part of becoming more empathetic is developing active listening skills. I’ve been using the exercise outlined here on the three levels of listening with my mentees for years.
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