ARTICLE: Fear of Empathy

Picture this… You’re talking with someone, things are tense, the other person starts saying things about you that you don’t agree with, perhaps things that bring up pain, defensiveness, or anger. Perhaps you’ve attended the Communication Dojo, or learned about empathy and other communication skills elsewhere, so theoretically you know that really hearing the other person right now, listening to them with empathy for what they’re experiencing, would probably improve the situation. But…there’s a stronger momentum in you to interrupt, to fight back, to shout “That’s not true!”

Part of what’s happening here is that YOU want to be heard, before you can hear the other person, but there’s often something else happening. I refer to this as “fear of empathy,” in this case “fear of giving empathy to the other person.”

This “fear” might just be a mild nervousness, but it can be much bigger. Sometimes it feels like our very survival will be threatened if we allow someone to continue to say something that sounds to us like a complete fabrication, especially if it casts us in a negative light. No matter our training or intentions to give everyone a “fair hearing” we cannot find the resilience to keep listening for one second longer.

Let’s look at a couple of very common flavors of this fear in action – fear of empathizing, because we believe, often unconsciously, that the “cost” of doing so is too large.

1) “If I empathize with the other person, I’ll acknowledge their needs, but I’ll end up giving up on my own.”

Have you frequently put the needs of others ahead of your own? When you hear the unmet needs of another person in your life do you start looking for ways to meet them, even if that means ignoring your own needs? Perhaps it even seems like someone close to you is very willing to continue having their needs met even if yours are not?

Connected Communication is not about giving up on yourself – so I invite you to make the following commitments, and to seek support to help you stick with them:

“I will listen to the needs of others AND I will ask them to hear my needs, so we can together look for ways that the needs on BOTH sides can be met.”

“I will listen to the needs of others AND I will remember that sometimes they’ll need to meet their needs in some way that does not involve me.”

“I will listen to the needs of others AND I will honor and include my needs as well as theirs.”

2) “What the other person is saying is untrue, so I refuse to validate it by empathizing with them!”

At a moment like this a communication trainer or mediator might ask you:

“Are you willing to listen to what’s going on for the other person, even if you disagree with some of what they’re saying?”

A key principle here is:

EMPATHY IS NOT AGREEMENT!

Empathy, in the way I’m using the word, means giving enough focus to what someone is saying that you come to understand their viewpoint or experience, regardless of whether or not you agree with it. It means getting clear on someone’s fundamental feelings and needs connected to what they’re saying, even if you do not share their memories or opinions. We might say it’s possible to empathize with someone even when you don’t have a “shared reality” with them.

Realizing this, and even making it clear to the other person, can sometimes bring about greater willingness to try empathy, even when you don’t agree with the other person. I sometimes say:

“I have a different view on what happened, but before saying anything about that I want to keep listening to you and checking I’m understanding how you’re feeling about this and what it is you really want.”

And…if you find you simply can’t listen to the other person, and they can’t listen to you, then remember the option of taking a break to go get empathy somewhere else – either from yourself or from a friend who knows how to listen without taking sides. We’re a little like water pitchers – they only have something to pour out if they’ve been filled up. It seems the same is true of people – the more we get empathy, the more we’re able to give it.

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