Empathy First

It’s fitting that my first post here would be about empathy – it wasn’t going to be. The subject of empathy was the thing that most excited me while I was studying and practicing therapy as a social work intern during my second year of grad school. Since that time my interests have developed but the primacy of empathy as a simple way of being in the world remains at the core of what I want to do with this blog.

The blog was created a couple of months ago and sat vacant while I took my time putting off posting. This changed after I listened to a podcast on Mormon Stories last week. In the podcast, Kendall Wilcox shares his own story as an openly gay and believing Mormon. He talks about working to bridge gaps of misunderstanding and proposes “a daily practice of empathy” through his empathy first initiative. Here are some thoughts from my perspective:

An approach to a daily practice of empathy

Empathy (a definition)Understanding and experiencing as if from another’s frame of reference without losing one’s self. (pp. 210- 211 Rogers, 1957)

A Daily Practice of Empathy: A rough formula
I.    Not-knowing (open, humble, curious)
II.    awareness (listening beyond surface content)
III.    acceptance/mindfulness (experiencing the moment with non-judgment)
IV.    the unique expression of empathy (individualized and congruent way of being in relationship)

These concepts can apply when practicing empathy for ourselves, others, and the world around us.

Not knowing begins with the self. Having a humble, open and curious stance toward our own experience in the moment, allows for more of that experience to come into our awareness. This leads to the opportunity for acceptance (acknowledging what is in the moment) and then expression (through communication/communion with the world(s) around us).

I. Not-knowing – a humble approach
Enter any encounter with the other acknowledging a general state of “not-knowing.” The approach of not-knowing requires a conscious letting go of assumptions, judgments, and certainty about the other’s experience. When we know that we don’t know we listen more which is the next suggested step.
Attending Dialectic/Paradoxes: not knowing and knowing, belief and doubt – both dialectics finding synthesis in faith.
II. Awareness – listening beyond content
Carl Rogers called this hearing the music behind the words. Another way to think of it is noticing the process behind the content. What do you perceive as the possible emotional experience behind the words of the person with whom you are listening? Through active listening and empathic responding you can come to know more of the emotional and experiential context of the content and words being said by a person.

  • Active listening – a basic communication skill that includes attention to eye contact, mirroring of body posture, non-verbal listening (nodding of head). This happens automatically when you’re having a good conversation with somebody with whom you have a lot in common. To deliberately introduce this skill when you’re speaking with someone who is not similar to you demographically or in terms of value system will allow you to experience a powerful shift in how you hear them and how they feel heard.
  • Empathic responding – a basic communication skill that goes with active listening. Empathic responding includes parroting, reflecting, summarizing, and here and now processing statements. Many of these are basic therapy skills that were initially outlined in Carl Rogers Client Centered Therapy and remain among the basic counseling skills from which therapeutic relationships are built and maintained.

Attending Dialectic/Paradoxes: necessity of both pain and pleasure, hearing to be heard, natural man and God’s in embryo, being AND becoming.

III. Acceptance/Mindfulness (experiencing the moment with non-judgment)
•    Acknowledging and accepting the subjective moment of experience as it is
o    Observe – just notice your experience (thoughts, emotions, sensations, environment)
o    Describe – put words to your experience (just the facts – no judgments, assumptions)
o    Participate – be fully present in the moment by letting go of controlling or changing someone or something.

•    Acceptance is not the same as agreement or indulgence. When someone practices true acceptance they are open and accepting of change as well. They will however, stop trying to change or control that which they cannot – in the process of letting go of this kind of control one gains power in accepting powerlessness and security in accepting insecurity.
IV.  the unique expression of empathy (individualized and congruent way of being in relationship)

The truly empathic expression will be:
•    Authentic – Genuine expression of wanting to know while acknowledging not-knowing.
•    Individual – the empathic expression will be uniquely idiosyncratic from the individual.
•    Creative – the empathic expression can be mediated through various forms of creative expression that are uniquely positioned to act as instruments to convey meaning (art, music, literature, food, making/organizing, discourse, silence)
•    Assertive – without apology or victimhood, the empathy carries no passivity or passive aggression. The empathy is not intending to change the other but rather is an honest and bold expression of the self’s attempt to approach the other.
•    Humble – without presumption, open and letting go of expectation.
•    Soulful (body and spirit) – physical, spiritual, emotional, cognitive expression of validation that are not just voiced but also felt and embodied. This occurs in different ways across varying relationships.

Overlapping paradoxes associated with empathy
•    Assertiveness AND Empathy – Holding an attempt to understand both the self and the other
•    Process AND content – when approaching the other, we tend to get caught up in the surface content and often fail to hear or recognize the underlying universal processes. Much of unnecessary conflict in the world is based in the natural and lazy tendency of naming and reacting to surface difference. Practicing experiential empathy allows one to dig under that surface to acknowledge and validate underlying emotions. Content is however part of the process. To completely ignore surface details of another’s experience will often result in not being able to hear more deeply. The music behind the words may or may not have to do with the words but often the words must be acknowledged before the music surfaces.
•    Acceptance AND Change – Two sides of the same coin. The push and pull leads to healing and growth
•    Authenticity AND Holding boundaries – being genuine and real without apologies while not casting pearls before swine
•    Firmness AND Flexibility – Being true and authentic while allowing for the inevitable changing flow of the everlasting moment
•    Unity AND Diversity – pulling together while giving space and value for unique otherness
•    Giving AND Receiving of offerings – charity/love/reciprocal service – soulful communion
•    Growth AND Decay – Embracing a continuum of Creation
•    Order AND Chaos – Preparing and allowing for structure and then letting go and being led without knowing and without expecting


Leave a comment