The Empathy Response – Why? How? When?

Written by: Jorinde Berben
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Most of us are trained by our families in how to respond to other people. We learn at an early age, watching our parents, how to react when a stranger insults you, or when you see your sister crying, or when a friend makes a mistake. And we all learn very different ways of dealing with this. Some of us may have learned to express our anger at an insult, while others will walk away. We may have heard ‘don’t be a baby’ when confronted with tears, or may have received a warm hug. The reactions we’ve seen didn’t only shape our own responses, but also the way we look at things. Are tears a sign of weakness? Is swearing typical for people who just can’t behave? The stories that come into our heads when we see someone do something, are often carbon copies of the reactions we’ve seen in our childhood.

Now, I hear you wondering: ‘So why is that a bad thing?’ Well, the reactions we give to other people’s words or behaviour aren’t always the reactions that help us, or the other person, feel better. When we get angry because someone insults us, we may have expressed our own boundary but we’ve also (probably) riled up our own emotions and the other person’s emotions.
Also, this engrained response doesn’t really give us much choice, does it? When you do something out of your automatic programming, you don’t have the opportunity to really think your strategy through.

One of the ways I’m learning to reprogram myself, and one of the ways in which I try to help clients, is by going to empathy first. Empathy is a corner stone of Non-Violent Communication, for ourselves and others. When we can see other people’s reactions through the lens of empathy, we learn not to feel attacked when someone insults us, and not to be offended when they are late. We can let go of our guilt and shame when we look at our own actions or lack thereof.

Contrary to what some people believe, empathy does not mean you condone actions that go against your values or agree with something you don’t want to agree with, but it means we can see the person behind those actions for who they are. When my daughter yells at me I can tell her, (if possible, calmly) that I don’t want to be yelled at. At the same time I can try to see what is making her so angry that she feels she has to yell, and address that issue. Empathy is a great way to diffuse an angry fight, and it’s a true comfort in moments of grief. It helps the other person feel heard, and in that way it can help them process their emotion instead of it persisting. The emotion has communicated itself succesfully because it is being understood. The same goes for our own emotions: When we give ourselves empathy, our emotions get the air they need and can be processed properly.

I should probably add that giving empathy, though quite simple in theory, is not easy in practice. Often our own unprocessed emotions get in the way of being empathic toward another person. In it’s most concise form, empathy is looking for the answer to the following two questions:

  1. What is this person feeling right now?
  2. What are they needing right now?

You don’t have the know the answer, you can ask, guess, double check. As long as you are focused on understanding the answer to the questions, you’re likely to stay empathetic. Mind you, if you use it as just a technique, a gimmick, it won’t work (well). It has to be heartfelt. When my partner and I are fighting (it happens), it is very hard for me to genuinely give him empathy as long as I’m still feeling angry. When his fear triggers my fear, I have a hard time acknowledging and understanding it. I need to calm down first, give myself the empathy I need, so I can access the empathy I can for him.

So now I’ve got the ‘why‘ and the ‘how’ covered, we move on to the ‘when’. When should you go to an empathic response? Well, my inclination would be to tell you ‘as often as possible with respect for your own limits’. I know that sounds really vague, but it’s an individual issue. Not everyone is the same. Not every situation is the same. Not every day is the same.
Are there any situations in which empathy doesn’t work at all? One could guess that with psychopaths or sociopaths empathy would do little good, but most of us that do connect on an emotional level to other people will respond favorably to empathy.

I’ve used empathy in many situations to soften, to open, to connect. I often go over the ‘what might they be feeling and needing’ questions on my own first, as I am processing a situation. Even if I’ve reacted in a non-empathic way at first, I can still go back to empathy later (for both myself and the other person).
Empathy can be really powerful to process situations from the past as well. When there’s someone I’ve been angry with for a long time, it can help to reframe the situations that have triggered that anger with empathy for all parties involved. It helps give nuance and grayscales in an often black-and-white world.

Like many things in life, empathy is a skill that gets better with practice. For many of us, it’s not an innate response. We don’t go into fight, flight, freeze or empathy. Rather, it’s a deliberate choice to connect even when we are triggered, even when we feel our programming wanting to play a tune. The more you do it, the more you train your brain to recognize a different response in emotional or stressful situations.

My life is a constant practice in empathy, and with each try, I get a little better at it. It gets a little easier. There’s room for screwing up, and for correcting those mistakes. It’s all part of the journey.

Thank you for reading and giving me some of your very precious time.
It means the world to me!

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