Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Power of Empathy

Definition of Empathy
The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.

Wow, that’s a mouth full. Let’s talk about empathy in a different way. Consider the following scenario:
You have had an atrocious day. The morning started out with little Amy Beth refusing to get up. Then she didn’t want to eat breakfast or wear the clothes that she had picked out the night before. The blouse, which she normally loves, was just too itchy. She was in one of her moods. By the time you exited the house you are seriously questioning why you ever thought having children was a good idea.

Amy Beth whined all the way to school and exclaimed that you are a mean mommy because you didn’t allow her to eat chocolate cookies for breakfast. By the time you arrived to school, Amy Beth was 5 minutes late. Of course, arriving late to school required that you get out of the car, walk your child to the office, show your i.d., sign Amy Beth in, and endure the disapproving glances of the front office staff.

Feeling totally stressed, you rushed to work, knowing that your boss would be less than happy with your tardiness because a very important deadline is due today. At least there was silence for the time being.
You arrived to the office to discover that the coworker assisting you with this project had called in sick. Suddenly you noticed that your teeth were clinched and your head was starting to pound. Your boss came in to remind you that your project is due by 4:30, as if you didn’t know, and once again you received those disapproving glances.

Finally, after taking a deep breath and inhaling a cup of coffee, you are focused on the job at hand and, surprisingly, accomplished more than you expected. Just when you were about to breathe a sigh of relief, your phone rang. It was the school reporting that little Amy Beth had been refusing to do her work and had a major meltdown at lunch. The assistant principal recounted that she screamed wildly, threw food, and finally hid under the table holding on to the table legs for dear life.

I think by now you’re getting the idea that this was a really bad day. So, let’s move ahead to when you finally arrived home to your husband. When asked, “How was your day?” you exploded into a rant. After a moment, your husband replied, “Honey, when are you ever going to learn to plan ahead for such unforeseen circumstances? And, haven’t I been telling you that Mary Beth has been going to bed too late? You just really let that child rule the roost……………………..

Just imagine how you were feeling after receiving these questions and remarks from your beloved? My guess is that you were not finding them very helpful and in fact you are now focused your venom on your spouse. However, if your husband had provided you with a good empathetic response such as, “What a rotten day, you must be so discouraged and exhausted,” you would probably feel validated, heard and understood. You might feel even better if he added,” What can I do to help?

Often, when we are emotionally distraught, the thing that soothes us the most is a healthy dose of empathy. Just a simple phrase that lets you know that another human being understands how you are feeling is remarkably calming.

Your assignment this month, my dear friends, is to consciously provide empathy to the children in your life. Instead of preaching, “shoulding,” punishing, or problem solving, provide a short statement of empathy and see what happens. (I am not saying this will be an easy task because it is human nature to fall back into our old patterns of behaviors.) I would love to hear how the power of empathy impacts you and yours.

Not quite sure how to go about this? The following are some phrases and examples that might be helpful. The key to having empathetic responses work effectively is to do this with the greatest of sincerity.

· Your child is tired and unusually cranky.“Wow, you must feel really tired. Would you like me to help  you put your toys away before going to bed?

· After telling your child not to run in the parking lot, she does anyway and breaks her favorite necklace.
“What a bummer! That was such a special piece of jewelry.”

· Your child has broken down in tears because he or she put off doing a school project and must miss a sleepover. “It must be really disappointing to have to miss the party. I know you were really looking forward to going and being with your friends.”

I know that some of you are probably thinking that in the examples above the child really needed to be “taught a lesson,” Such thinking permits you to launch into a sermon which may make you feel better but only increases animosity toward you thus distracting the child from the real lesson …..the consequence and the yucky feelings. Give empathy a chance. It really works.

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