“At least…”

woman-with-shameHow Not to Give Empathy

It all came back to me. When someone tells you their problem, their story of sadness, and you want to give empathy, DON’T say, “Well, at least this or that didn’t happen” or “At least you still have…” That is just minimizing, or cheering up. Not empathy. Brene Brown says so.

But a few weeks ago, I found myself chatting with a friend with a young son, who told me about having broken up with her husband. I expressed my sorrow at the news, then heard myself say, “Well, at least your son had his dad for the first couple of years.” My friend looked at me for a moment, then looked down and said, “I don’t know much about how to give empathy, but I heard that saying ‘at least’ isn’t it.” I gulped, filled with embarrassment, looked back at her and said, “I think I need to take one of my own classes, right?”

And in a book study group on The Art of Empathy by Karla McLaren, a participant was talking about his sadness over not having as wide a circle of friends as he would like. I recalled having read the same section of the book and having had the insight (in high school) that just one close friend was all I really needed, so I began chirping about that insight, until another group member respectfully interrupted me and gently reminded me that this was not empathy for the first speaker.

As I apologized, I went into a full-blown shame reaction. Karla McLaren writes about shame. And here I was experiencing it, while watching myself, reporting on it to a group of people who were also interested in this emotion. I felt a wave of heat coming up my back and right up into my face, causing me to redden. McLaren says the action required by shame is: “Moderate your behavior so you don’t hurt or embarrass yourself or others.” The questions she suggests are: “Who has been hurt?” and “What must be made right?” I saw clearly how my talking had been diverting attention away from the first speaker’s sadness, minimizing his pain, and attempting to “cheer him up.” I took a few breaths, humbly acknowledged this behavior and how much I still had to practice, and brought back attention to the firt speaker’s needs.

Of course, he and the group forgave me, and even thanked me for being so open and vulnerable about describing my shame response.

These two experiences reminded me why I teach communication skills. The main reason is so that I can learn them better myself!

What is a HeartSpeak class?

“What will I learn in a HeartSpeak class?”

scan0001HeartSpeak is the language of feelings and needs. It’s based on “Nonviolent Communication,” for which I am very grateful to Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. Can communication sometimes be violent? Verbal violence is not only making threats of punishment. Much more of our speech is violent in that it is not respectful of the other person. Our minds may be full of thoughts, opinions, evaluations, judgments, criticisms, comparisons and analysis. Unfortunately, when we communicate these things to others, it usually does not help us connect with them. It takes us out of our hearts and into our heads.

On the other hand, when we speak about our own feelings and needs, these are universal and less likely to provoke a defensive reaction. It allows others to hear us better. For example, if in the midst of a conversation I say, “I’m really upset, and I need some space!” it will have a very different impact than if I said, “You shouldn’t tell me how to live my life!” A person hearing “You shouldn’t…” may feel angry and defensive, and start arguing, defending, justifying–none of which helps people to connect at the heart.

Empathy is the effort to recognize, and reflect back, the feelings and needs of another person. Since we can never really know, it’s always a guess–such as, “Are you feeling overwhelmed right now, and are you needing some peace and quiet?” Even if we guess wrong, the other person is usually helped to get in touch with what their own inner state is, and that is a gift. Although we may really want to help them solve their problems, most people prefer to come up with their own answers with the help of the reflection you give them through respectful, empathic listening.

Like any new language, HeartSpeak is not learned in a day, and it’s helpful to practice and try it on! That’s why a HeartSpeak class includes lots of experiential exercises like role-plays and sentence-completions. And it’s fun! We laugh a lot.

The first of the upcoming HeartSpeak classes is a free taste. After that, there are five more classes, for $60. I encourage you to take all six classes so that you can establish a firm foundation and get plenty of opportunities to practice! You’ll be learning to make neutral observations that avoid triggering people; expressing feelings (not thoughts) and needs (not strategies); making a positive request that’s do-able in real time; and giving empathy to ourselves and others. We devote special time to anger and how to manage it effectively, without suppressing it but recognizing the judgmental thoughts that give rise to it.

I hope you’ll visit the other pages on this website to understand more!