Imagine we are at work.
First thing in the morning, we get an email from our boss with a pressing assignment that must be done by 5 pm. We jump in. But a minute later we receive a call from a major client who is on the verge of losing it. Because of an unanticipated problem and resulting delay. We quickly marshall the troops, get to work on identifying and fixing the issue, and spend the rest of the day directing traffic and reassuring the client. By the end of the day, the issue is resolved.
Touchdown. Client happy. Crisis averted.
As we’re getting ready to wrap it up for the night, we remember our boss’s request. Crap.
We reach out to apologize but before we can finish, he yells: “I’m not interested in your excuses! What the hell do you think I’m paying you for? To sit around all day on your butt?!?” We start to respond, but he says, “Save it!” and ends the zoom call.
That night we share what happened with a friend who tries to “help” in eight different ways. [You might take moment to read each entry below and then write down how each statement makes you feel.]
1: Denial of feelings: “There’s no reason to be so upset. It’s foolish to feel that way. You’re probably just tired and blowing the whole thing out of proportion. It can’t be as bad as you make it out to be…”
2: The Philological Response: “Look, life is like that. Things don’t always turn out the way you want. You have to learn to take things in stride. In this world, nothing is perfect.”
3: Advice: “You know what I think you should do? Tomorrow morning, reach out to your boss and say, “Look, I was wrong.” Then, sit right down and finish that piece of work you neglected today. Don’t get trapped by those little emergencies that come up. And if you’re smart and you want to keep that job of yours, you’ll make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”
4: Questions: “Has this ever happened before? What exactly was the emergency you had that would cause you to forget a special request from your boss? Didn’t you realize he’d be angry if you didn’t get to it immediately? Why didn’t you call him back and try to explain again?”
5: Defense of the Other Person: “I can understand your boss’s reaction. He’s probably under terrible pressure. You’re lucky he doesn’t lose his temper more often.”
6: Pity: “Oh, you poor thing, That is terrible. I feel so sorry for you, I could just cry.”
7: Amateur psychoanalysis: “Has it ever occurred to you that the real reason you are upset is because your boss represents a father figure in your life? I’ll bet as a child you worried about letting your father down, and when your boss scolded you it brought back those fears of rejection. Isn’t that true?”
8: An Empathetic Response: “That sounds like a rough experience. To be subjected to an attack like that, especially after being under so much pressure, must have been hard to take.”
This scenario is outlined in the terrific book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. While the primary audience for the book is parents, I found many of its lessons to be much more universal.
The bottom line?
“When we’re upset or hurting,” Adele and Elaine write, “the last thing we want to hear is advice, philosophy, psychology, or the other fellow’s point of view. Pity makes us feel pitiful, questions put us on the defensive, and most infuriating is being told we have no reason to feel what we’re feeling.”
We all crave the empathetic response outlined in #8.
“But let someone really listen, let someone acknowledge my inner pain and give me a chance to talk more about what’s troubling me, and I begin to feel less upset, less confused, more able to cope with my feelings and my problem,” Adele and Elaine state.
And yet, the language of empathy does not come naturally to us. The good news is, with a little effort, we can learn to respond this way.
Elaine and Adele summarize what’s involved in three easy steps:
1: Listen with full focus and full attention. Put our phone away and listen with our ears, our eyes, and our heart.
2: Acknowledge feelings with a word – “Oh” … “Mmm” … “I see.” Words like these, coupled with a caring attitude, are invitations to explore one’s own thoughts and feelings, and come up with a solution. Resist the temptation to jump in and start offering advice.
3: Give the feelings a name. It is deeply comforting to hear the words one is experiencing: someone has acknowledged our inner experience. In moments of distress, we are not seeking agreement or disagreement, but for someone to recognize what we are feeling. Note: this practice is different from saying, “I know how you feel.” Which often results in the other person saying or thinking, “No, you don’t.” But when we are able to find a specific word that captures what they relating, the other person senses we understand.
“But more important than the words we say is our attitude,” say Adele and Elaine. “If our attitude is not one of compassion, then whatever we say will be experienced as phony or manipulative. It is when our words are infused with our real feelings of empathy that we speak directly to the other person’s heart.”
The authors learned this approach from Dr. Haim Ginott. Adele explains: “I tried to tune in to what I thought my children might be experiencing, and when I did, my words seemed to follow naturally. I wasn’t just using a technique. I really meant it when I said, “So you’re still feeling tired – even though you just napped.” Or, “I’m cold, but for you, it’s hot in here.” Or, “I can see you didn’t care much for that show.”
“After all we were two separate people, capable of having two different sets of feelings. Neither of us was right or wrong. We each felt what we felt.”
Life isn’t always: “I’m right. You’re wrong.” Many times, we are both right. We just have different perspectives.
Adele remembers, for a while, the new skills were a big help and there were fewer arguments. “Then, one day, my daughter announced, ‘I hate grandma,’ and it was my mother she was talking about.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say,” Adele snapped back. “You don’t mean it. I don’t want to ever hear that coming out of your mouth again.
The author reflects she could be accepting of most of the feelings her children had, but when she became angry or anxious she would revert to her old ways.
We are all works-in-progress. We do something or have an experience. We reflect. We take a different action the next time. What author and coach Dr. Daniel Friedland calls “the infinite curriculum.”
Reflection: Which of the eight responses outline above is our “go to” when a friend or family member shares a difficult story with us?
Action: Experiment with saying “Oh,” “Mmm,” or “I see” instead.