Day 30: Empathy

In the past when people came to me with their problems, I used to do something really, really stupid. I’d try to fix them. Crazy right?

But we all do this. We offer advice or sympathy because we’re secretly hoping that we can fix the suffering of the person in front of us. But this never works for one simple reason: people aren’t broken.

They may be suffering and upset, but they are never, ever broken. Which is why the best thing you can do to help someone who is going through a rough time (including yourself) is to be willing to be present, to listen, and to let them know you’re there for them.

But doing this well is hard. You’ve seen so many examples of less effective ways to do this.

How to Practice Empathy

Empathy is simply the the practice of being present with others, but it can be expressed in many ways. It can be expressed through deep listening, curious reflection, and skillful requests or offers of support.

While empathy has many forms there are a few approaches I often see people use when they are trying to connect. While these approaches are not wrong or bad, it’s important to know that they aren’t empathy as well as understand why they don’t work.

Here are things that aren’t empathy:

1. Advice –
This may seem obvious, but this is the one approach most people use when someone comes to them with a problem. But I’ve found that 80% of the time when someone asks me for advice what they really want is empathy. And the other 20% that do want advice are able to hear it better when I give them empathy first.

So I always try to offer empathy before I offer advice. It’s also why I say, “I have some advice arising. Are you open to hearing it?” before I spill out all the ideas I have to fix their problem.

Why it doesn’t work:
Advice doesn’t work because it pushes away someone’s suffering. Remember the details of a problem are rarely the issue. It’s the feelings those details create for the speaker.

The other reason advice doesn’t work is that people often get it without asking. When this happens the advice can be seen as a criticism as opposed to an attempt to help.

Finally it’s important to understand why we give advice. Mostly people give advice because just sitting with someone else’s suffering is hard and advice helps you feel like you’ve done what you can and move on. But the braver and more compassionate choice is to be willing to sit with this persons suffering by offering them your open and present heart.

2. Sympathy –
Sympathy and empathy, they both sound alike, so they must be the same. Well not quite. While empathy is about being present with someone’s suffering, sympathy is about trying to feel someone’s suffering with them.

Why it doesn’t work:
Usually sympathy takes the attention away from the person in pains and puts it back on you as the listener. Instead of creating space where the speaker can be heard sympathy removes the space and creates a need in you to be heard as well.

Of course sympathy can arise naturally when sharing in bad news, or if another person’s loss makes you feel bad for them, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you now feel like crap it’s going to help the other person feel better.

3. Collusion –
Collusion is when two people create a connection over a common dislike or enemy. It happens often with people who, for example, have bad bosses. Even though everyone is miserable they feel closer to their co-workers because you’re all in this together.

The easiest way to notice if you’re colluding is if you start to agree with and amplify the details the person is sharing with you. For example if they say, “My boyfriend forgot our anniversary,” and you say, “OH man what a jerk I can’t believe he did that, you deserve better.” As you can see you’ve taken the detail of the forgotten anniversary and added the judgment of him as a jerk and the assertion that she deserves better.

Why it doesn’t work:
While collusion does create a connection, the connection isn’t very deep. In addition it prevents the other person from getting to the feelings and needs that are causing them distress. Instead it keeps them at the level of the details.

So when I feel the desire to collude, I do my best to pause and say, “You know I’m not here to tell you that your boyfriend is or isn’t a jerk, I’m here to listen to you and be there for you.”

In addition to these 3 very common mistakes, there are a whole list of other things commonly mistaken for empathy including:

  1. Telling a story – Oh that same thing happened to me…
  2. Console – It’s ok, it’ll be alright
  3. Pushing away feelings – You don’t need to feel bad just cheer up
  4. Analyze – You just feel bad because of X,Y,Z
  5. Investigate – Why did you do that? Why did you feel like that?
  6. Diagnose – It sounds like you had a panic attack.

And of course their are more. But what’s important to remember is that while all of these will create some form of connection, that they are simply not as powerful as real empathy.

Ok so how do you practice empathy:

  1. Be present – don’t’ try to fix anything just be really present to what’s happening for the other person, both on the surface as well as beneath it. This is the only thing that is really required.
  2. Listen deeply – listen to what they say not for details but for the feelings and needs underneath.
  3. Reflect – get curious and guess at what they are feeling and needing and get confirmation.
  4. Allow for silence- sometimes just sitting and listening is enough. Resist the urge to fill silence if that’s what they need.
  5. Offer – Offer is the other side of requesting, if you think something might help offer by asking. Say would you like: some reassurance, to collaborate on a solution, so ideas about what to do next, more time to talk about this. Just make sure your offer is made gently and openly.

That’s it. If you just practice these things and are willing to follow your intuition about what to do next, you can create deep connections and help anyone not feel alone when they are having a rough time.

Ok now it’s your turn:

Challenge #30: Empathy

1. Practice:
Take everything you’ve learned over this phase and practice it on a friend or loved one. Especially if they start telling you something that went wrong. If you notice a tendency to offer something other than empathy just remember the mantra, empathy first!

2. Reflect:

  • Once you’ve had a chance to try this at least once, reflect on your experience.
  • What was it like to offer empathy instead of one of it’s near enemies?
  • Did you feel more connected?
  • What kinds of non empathy were you most tempted to offer?
  • Is this something you do often?
  • What if you only offered empathy for a week?
  • What if you offered empathy to yourself more often?

3. Share:

Finally share in one or all of the following ways

  • Blog – Write a post about the type of non empathy you most often resort to, or write about what it was like to practice all of the skills you’ve learned in phase 4.
  • Share- Using #30dayhappy or posting in our Facebook group share your #1 non empathy approach and why you think you resort to it so often.
  • Comment – Tell me why you think your advice is amazing! or how practicing empathy is so hard for you in the comments below.

Day 27: Making Requests

One of the biggest problems people have in relationships is not knowing how to skillfully ask their partner for what they want. They know how to manipulate and demand to get what they want. But they don’t know how to ask for what would help them feel better in a simple and honest way.

When I learned mindful expression, I no longer felt like I was surrounded by difficult people. Instead, I saw how they were willing to collaborate with me. And it was all because of the art of making skillful requests.

A Note on Mindful Expression
In order to understand how to make a skillful request, it’s important to know how to practice mindful expression. So if you haven’t read the last challenge, now would be a good time to do that……………. Back? Ok here we go!

How to Make Skillful Requests

Specific: I know what you’re asking me to do.
Time bound: I know when you’re asking me to do it.
Doable: I am capable of doing it and you could tell I’ve done it.

Let’s look at each of these more deeply.

Specific – I know what you are asking me to do.

Most requests are vague. You ask your kids to clean up their rooms, and you ask your partner to say something nice. The problem is you and your kids have different idea of clean and your partner might think a “nice shirt” is good enough.

The more clear you are on what you want, the more likely you are to get it.

Here are some tips for making specific requests:
1. Use positive language.

Often requests take the form of something you want to stop. But I learned as a preschool teacher humans are not wired to not do things. So instead of saying “don’t”, I learned to ask for what I wanted.

It may seem silly but it works. Saying “don’t do X” isn’t as clear as saying “please do Y”. So when you make requests make them positive.

Don’t say:
Please don’t come home late.
Do say:
Can you please do your best to be home on time?

Don’t say:
Please stop annoying me.
Do say:
Can you please play in the other room for 5 minutes while I finish dinner?

  1. Can a camera see it?

When making a request imagine, that a camera is filming the person doing the thing that would meet your need.

Here is an example of an action request:
You: Would you be willing to fold your t-shirts, pick up your dirty laundry, and make your bed before we leave for the park?

Here is an example of a non action oriented request:
You: This room is a wreck! Can you make sure your room is nice and tidy before we leave?

In the first example you know what is being asked. In the 2nd you could guess, but it’s less clear.

If you do these two things your requests will be much more specific and thus much more effective and connecting.

Time Bound

When I lived at the monastery, no one was there indefinitely. Everyone took a vow of commitment they set themselves, which made these commitments more real. Commitments in the regular world are no different. When you commit to something for a period of time, that commitment is more real, but an open-ended request is open to interpretation. So good requests should be time bound.

Here’s how you make a time bound request:
Instead of making blanket behavior requests ask for a specific behavior on a specific occasion or period of time.

Here’s are examples blanket behavior requests:

  • Can you make sure to be on time to our meetings?
  • Can you please call me when you know you’ll be late?
  • Would you mind being the one who cleans out the litter box at night?
  • Hey could you give me a call when you’re coming home from work?

In each of these examples the request is clear, but the time period isn’t defined. While this isn’t the worst thing ever, the requests would be better if they were time bound.

Here’s how you could anchor these requests in time:

  • Next time we meet can you try to be on time and if you’re going to be late can you give me a call?
  • I worry when you come home late from work, so would you be willing to call me next Thursday if you know you’ll be coming home late?
  • Would you mind taking on the responsibility of cleaning the litter box out at night this week?
  • Hey if you’re going to be coming home late on any of the next 4 Thursdays could you give me a call to let me know?

As you can see in each of these examples the request has become time bound, so it’s easier to know what’s been asked. It also cues the asker to think about the time period involved. This means that if I can’t pick up the kids cause I’ll be out of town in two weeks I’m more likely to let you know.

Doable – A request is doable if the person is capable of doing it, and both of us can tell that it’s being done.

Actually if you make sure your requests are specific and time bound 90% of them will be doable. But these tips for doable requests will cover some things that haven’t been mentioned.

  1. Make your request consciously –
    Often we make unconscious requests. One example is when a young child says,”I’m hungry!” And though this is pretty clear request for food, as adults we do the same thing without the clarity.

Here’s an example of an unconscious request:
“Honey I was really upset that you took that phone call at dinner”

What’s the request here? Is there one?

Most people would guess you’re asking your partner not to take phone calls at dinner. But it’s not entirely clear.

Here is an example of a clear request:
You:“ Honey you know when you answered that call at dinner?
Him: (Nods)
You: Well when you did that I felt sad because I have a need for connection that’s met when we spend time together. And I was wondering if next time we had dinner you’d be willing to leave your phone in the other room?

As you can see this request is clear and conscious. It also invites the husband into conversation.

He might respond: I’d be happy to do that, but I’ve got a really big deal this week. Would it be okay if I had my phone at dinner this week, but next week I’ll take you out someplace nice and I’ll leave my phone at home.

Now you are negotiating for ways to meet both of your needs and that’s the goal.

  1. Include feeling and needs –
    When we ask for something without explaining why we’re asking for it, it makes it hard to agree to.

Here’s an example of an opaque request:
Why don’t you get a haircut?

Here’s an example of a clear request:
When I notice how long your hair is I feel worried because I’m afraid you might not see where you’re going and get hurt. Would you be willing to cut it just enough so it stays out of your eyes?

In the first example, this could be a request, a statement, or an insult, but because there isn’t anything behind it, it’s unclear what’s being requested and why.

In the second example it’s very clear what is being asked for and why, which makes it more doable. Again it also invites the other person into a conversation about hair length, safety, and their relative merits.

  1. Don’t Make Demands
    A demand is a request with a threat attached. It’s not a real request. Instead it’s an act of manipulation or power over someone or something else. And it doesn’t create connection or trust.

The easiest way to know if you’re making a demand is to figure out if there s an “or else” real or implied at the end of your request.

Here are some examples of demands:

  • Are you going to make sure you’re home on time tonight mister?
  • Are you going to stop lying to me or not?
  • Will you make sure you call me next Tuesday like you told me you would? Cause if you don’t I’m going to be so pissed!

In each of these examples there is an implied or explicit “or else.” If someone said any of these to me I’d be wary about what might happen if I didn’t abide by these requests.

If you feel like you are going to make a demand, you probably need more empathy, or need to get practice some skillful expression before you try to make a request.

Now it’s time for you to try.

Challenge #27: Making Requests

  1. Practice:
    Call up a friend, find a roommate, or talk to your partner and try making a request. Remember to include your feelings and needs and to use your listening and reflection skills in the conversation.

  2. Reflect:

  • Once you’ve tried the practice reflect on your experience using these questions:
  • How did your request go?
  • Did it feel harder or easier to make a request that so specific?
  • How was you request received by the other person?
  • If they agreed what happened next?
  • If they disagreed what happened next?
  • Did you feel like you were demanding?
  • Do you think they felt that way?
  • What do you think would change if you always make requests like this?
  1. Share: As always share in one or all the following ways
  • Blog: Write a post about how your request went and what you noticed.
  • Share: Post the request you tried and one simple thing you learned
  • Comment: Think this way of talking is awesome or lame? Let me know in the comments below.