Empathy can be a challenge. The obvious reason is that it can be hard to see things from another person’s perspective. It can be hard to imagine how they are seeing things and why they feel or act in a certain way. Another obvious reason is that it involves the personal sacrifice that Brené refers to in the video; going into those dark places within yourself and your experiences that help you to connect with the other person’s dark place.
The less obvious reason is that it takes time and effort. This is because the only way you can truly show empathy is by listening and listening for long enough to get the full picture. Not part of it with some additions and assumptions that you have tacked on. But all of it and by all of it I mean all of what they want to share; all of what is important to them. You have to just BE with them in a non-judgmental way and wait until it’s all come out.
It takes effort. It takes intention. It is generous.
It aids connection.
It is what we all need.
On the Monday of my son’s last week of term I waited in the school playground at the end of the day for him. As the children started coming out his teacher caught my eye and then proceeded to walk over to me. Uh oh. What every parent dreads…
“We had a bit of an issue today. B punched another boy in the face and gave him a nose bleed.”
Argh. Apparently, he had said he was trying to catch the boy during a game in the playground. Immediately I’m awash with extreme discomfort. My child is a sociopath. What will the other parent think? What am I doing wrong?!
I had given the teacher a letter the week before to explain that we were moving and it may affect B’s behaviour. So, she expresses that it could be about that and I agree.
So, there I am thinking that I am practising good empathy by trying to be understanding about the emotions behind the behaviour. I try to talk to him on the way back to his friend’s house and he isn’t paying attention. I get annoyed. I want a quick answer to reassure me of my worries. Why did you do it? For the love of all things good and pure, WHY??
It wasn’t a good time to go there when he wanted to gallop along with his friends. Thankfully, I had a belated brainwave when we got home later on and took him outside to pick blackberries by himself and we chatted.
Oh my, trying to get information from a five-year-old can prove difficult. It’s like trying to have a tennis rally with one. You keep serving balls and they either fall to the ground or get volleyed in another direction. One thing you can guarantee is they rarely make it over the net back to you.
But I wasn’t giving up easy.
I managed to discover that they were playing Rescue Bots and the victim was the ‘bad guy’ of this imaginative scenario. There was a moment when I asked B if he did it for a certain reason and he said yes. But I realised I probably put that idea in his head. So I tried again, hoping to avoid putting words in his mouth.
“So, did you just get carried away pretending?”
“If you do that, your friends won’t want to play with you. Just because he’s the bad guy, it doesn’t mean you can hit him.”
“Yeah! Like Gru.”
Just then, the penny dropped. This nugget of information just popped out after what felt like a fairly long time of chatting in a non-confrontational way.
The following day, B was going on a school trip to watch Despicable Me 3 as an end of year treat and that morning he had been anxious about it. He was worried he might get scared during it and we wouldn’t be there with him. So we showed him a trailer. during which, Gru punches the bad guy square in the face and because it is hilariously timed, my husband and I burst out laughing without giving it much thought.
Apparently, five-year-olds can’t instinctively discern the difference between finding punching funny when it’s done in a movie and when it’s done in real life, causing a nose bleed. Who knew?
I never could have assumed that such an innocent, age-appropriate reason was behind it. Instead, I leapt to my own conclusion regarding his inner turmoil about moving. If I hadn’t taken that 15 minutes to gently probe the issue I’d have been left feeling like I had raised an up-and-coming school bully with whom I felt completely disconnected.
I know why you did that is a statement that doesn’t line up with empathy… Instead:
Tell me why you did that. I’m listening…
A WIP for me.