Empathy Entails a Willingness to “Step Into the Puddle”

Imagine that you have just been diagnosed with cancer, and that your prognosis is uncertain. Now picture sharing this information with a handful of close and trusted people, and telling them you are scared. Which one of the comments below would feel comforting to hear? “You can beat this, I know you can.” “Do you have your will in order?” “My aunt has cancer also. She went on a vegan diet, and it has helped.”  “If you had only quit smoking 10 years ago.” “I know how you feel. I had a cancer scare once.” “I am so sorry this has happened to you. Would you like to talk? I would be scared too.”

Although all of the above responses may (or may not) be useful, only the last one demonstrates empathy. Empathy acknowledges someone’s emotions and demonstrates a willingness to hear their feelings. And it’s their feelings that you’re willing to hear and talk about, not your own. Empathy is the ability to feel the emotions of someone else. It reflects how well we identify with another person’s pain, fears, moods and experiences. It allows you to feel compassion for what has befallen me, and allows me to feel sensitive and tender about what has happened to you.

In the past I have described this as “stepping into the puddle.” Created by authors Pat Love and Steven Stosny, “stepping into the puddle” involves sitting with someone who has fallen in “emotional mud” with your heartfelt presence, caring, concern and participation. It assists someone in feeling they are not alone in their personal struggles, emotional quandaries or hurt feelings. It invites us to enter into another person’s feelings–as if those feeling were our own. It allows me to understand and have compassion for what you’re feeling, even if I don’t have those feelings myself. And it encompasses good feelings also, so “stepping into the puddle” with you might entail rejoicing in your victories and celebrating in your successes–as well as being there for you when you’re going though rough times.

How do I do that? By joining you with my presence, my compassionate response, my kindness and my wholehearted participation. It’s communicating “I am so sorry (or happy) to hear this news.” “I would feel the same way you do if that happened to me.” “What would ease your pain or give you hope?” “My heart goes out to you.” “What incredibly bad luck.” “What a remarkably resilient person you must be to weather such a storm. What gives you the strength to do it?” “What’s eating at you? I can see you’re upset. May I invite you to talk about it?” “Where did you get such inner strength and resilience?” “What are you having trouble accepting and dealing with?” “What would help you to feel stronger and more determined?”

In a conflict or disagreement between us, I must be able to listen without interruption, and let you say what you feel and think, even when I think you’re wrong or being unfair. I must be able to tolerate disagreement without withdrawing, and hear your angry feelings or harsh judgements without responding to you in a harsh way. “Stepping into the puddle” asks of me to respond to you in a friendly, non-combative way.

What is to be gained from doing this? If you do it well, you will gain an opportunity to create a closer, more peaceful and cooperative relationship, a more intimate and trusting bond and a better partnership.

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