Empathy is like mindfulness; it’s hard work. But, the rewards offered by both virtues are simply priceless and deeply spiritual. When I say hard work, what I really mean is that while to some of us it may come a bit more naturally than others, it has to be learned, honed, and championed. You may have noticed that you can never hurt the other person with empathy.  The same cannot be said about any other emotion at all. 

There are times when you have to be firm, times when compassion, love etc. may not do good to the recipient. There are situations where you have to be harsh even if you are polite. Sometimes, you just don’t agree with the other person. In other words, no other virtue or emotion can be practiced with such rationale and absoluteness as empathy. That’s why I compared it with mindfulness; you can never have enough of it.

And the reason empathy is hard work is that it requires us to invest our time and energy in the other person. It demands that we put our opinions and preferences aside and simply listen with keenness and mindfulness so we may see the world from their perspective. It’s not just borrowing their specs, it’s looking through their pair of eyes. At the root of empathy is the firm understanding that I don’t have to agree or disagree with the other person. That, their actions or words don’t require my nod or disapproval. Sometimes, we just have to listen, to be. 

Have you noticed that children share more and speak more truth with those who listen to them without judging them? Listening to someone is not merely a social courtesy but the very basis of deep human connection and empathy. I am reminded of a passage I read in Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. I read this book back in 2014 and cited it here and here. In this wonderful read, he highlights the ten most common mistakes people make in compassionate communication. These could easily be the ten pirates of empathy. As follows:

  1. Advising: “I think you should … “ “How come you didn’t … ?” 
  2. One-upping: “That’s nothing; wait till you hear what happened to me.” 
  3. Educating: “This could turn into a very positive experience for you if you just … “ 
  4. Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault; you did the best you could.” 
  5. Story-telling: “That reminds me of the time … “ 
  6. Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.” 
  7. Sympathizing: “Oh, you poor thing … “ 
  8. Interrogating: “When did this begin?” 
  9. Explaining: “I would have called but … “ 
  10. Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.” 

I’d like to add two more to it:

  1. Judging: “You had it coming.  How could you be so dumb?”
  2. Disparaging: “I told you so.”

Allow me to quote some more of Rosenberg:

In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner describes how painful it was for him, when his son was dying, to hear the words people offered that were intended to make him feel better. Even more painful was his recognition that for twenty years he had been saying the same things to other people in similar situations.

Believing we have to “fix” situations and make others feel better prevents us from being present. Those of us in the role of a counselor or psychotherapist are particularly susceptible to this belief. Once, when I was working with twenty-three mental health professionals, I asked them to write, word for word, how they would respond to a client who says, “I’m feeling very depressed. I just don’t see any reason to go on.” I collected the answers they had written down and announced, “I am now going to read out loud what each of you wrote. Imagine yourself in the role of the person who expressed the feeling of depression, and raise your hand after each statement you hear that gives you a sense that you have been understood.” Hands were raised to only three of the twenty-three responses. Questions such as “When did this begin?” constituted the most frequent response; they give the appearance that the professional is obtaining the information necessary to diagnose and then treat the problem. In fact, such intellectual understanding of a problem blocks the kind of presence that empathy requires. 

To cut a long story short, when practicing empathy the idea is not to find solutions or fix something. The other person is sharing with you what is bothering them or how they are feeling. If they need your advice, they will ask for it. Until then, they have come to you with the trust that you will hear them out and not judge them, that you will not dismiss them or their concerns as nothing. That, you will not try to lift their spirits with hopeful talk and grandiose statements about their future. You know why? These tactics don’t work. They have approached you with a big wound and you have put a bandaid on it. Not only the strip will come off quickly, it will hurt even more when it’ll be time to rip it. Empathy is not pep-talk or a flurry of false assurances. It is simply the art of sharing their vulnerability and confusion by being fully present.

Mulla had been trying to court a woman for quite some time without much success. But today, he looked particularly joyous.
“Why Mulla,” his friend said, “you look rather happy today!”
“Well, that woman, you know,” Mulla said shyly. “Looks like she will be my wife, after all.”
“Oh wow! So, she’s accepted your proposal?”
“Not yet,” Mulla said. “But, last night, she said to me, ‘Listen Mulla, it’s the last time I’m saying no to you.’”

In true empathy, the aim is to remove the block of intellectual understanding so we may open our hearts to make space for the other person. The idea is not to interpret their words according to our understanding and regurgitate what we know. Instead, it is to open your door and let them in when you hear the knock. Empathy springs from the most beautiful corner of your heart, not the mind. If I may reiterate I once read somewhere, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” 

And you know what else blocks empathy? Pain. Somewhere, it is the reason that I encourage all of us to live our lives fully and to be compassionate towards ourselves too. If you are in pain yourself, it’d be much harder to feel any empathy for others. At any rate, in empathy, your conversation with the other person will always come to a natural, a kind of gentle closure. Much like how a scoop of vanilla ice cream melts down on a warm chocolate brownie.

Even if everything else feels harder when you need to be empathetic, always try and ease out of the conversation as it ends. Never dismiss the other person. An abrupt closure will undo all the effort and healing. Don’t say, “Alright, now let’s move on.” I naturally tend to say, “Is there anything else you wish to say or ask?” It makes me and the other person feel they have been heard. Remember, they have come to you because they are looking for a friend, not a therapist. Good closures are always soft. Imagine the slow drawing of the curtains and gently bringing the lights back on at the end of a show vis-a-vis a sudden slamming of doors and jarring floodlights staring at you. Empathetic is not about being pathetic with emphasis. Just saying…

What if we could differentiate between advice and empathy in a musical way? Using “pirates” in the title reminded me of this magnificent rendition by Jarrod Radnich (headphones off, eyes open). That’s what good advice sounds like. Now, listen to this classical piece by Schubert; it’s one of my favorites (headphones on, eyes closed). That’s empathy for you. Both have their time and place but they are not the same.

As Mother Teresa said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

Empathy is when love has shed the cocoon of judgments and metamorphosed from merely an expression into a living emotion. If you are truly in love, all else will happen naturally.

Peace.
Swami