The Art of Being
Deborah Chandler, Ph.D.
In relationships, what people want more than anything is to feel understood. Being right is not terribly satisfying unless power is your thing. If you really crave connection, then empathy is the royal road.
Empathy is using your mind and imagination to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You are positioning yourself to see the world through the other person’s perspective. Once there, you have the power to affirm the other person for what they affirm.
Empathic affirmation is an acknowledgement of understanding. It is not an agreement. From an empathic stance we can always say, “I understand and appreciate where you’re coming from.” We never have to add, “and I agree.” Because we may not agree. What we are offering is understanding. Usually, this brings a calming effect to dialogue and the opportunity for further mutuality.
Empathy is a great tool to have in a relational arsenal. Empathy creates connections without obligation. Obligation feels constricting. With obligation we feel coerced into an agreement or belief we may not truly endorse. We might take on an obligation to minimize conflict. We go along to get along.
This passive acquiescence to obligation often backfires. When we’ve had enough of feeling not understood, we usually react negatively. We may quietly shut down or noisily protest. Either way we have created less connection.
Empathic understanding allows us to engage and affirm. We may ask the other person to also understand our position without the requirement of endorsing a position they might not affirm. We too want to feel understood.
Some people refer to themselves as “empaths.” This assertion usually means they feel at the mercy of their own caring. They feel too much. This is not empathy. This is getting overly involved in the needs and feelings of other. Empathy implies a discipline with one’s boundaries. With empathy, we know the difference between what is ours and what is the other person’s. With empathy we do not collapse this distance.
Empathy implies respect for differences. From an empathic stance we can witness the multiplicity around us. We can understand the motivations that other people respond to. Again, we don’t have to agree, but we can offer an acknowledgement of their individual perspectives.
From my experience, empathy allows me to sidestep my judgements and to connect with people who expand my understanding. I value the opportunity to have these connections. Empathy provides a royal road to mutuality.