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Empathy 101: How to Listen Instead of Handing Out a To do List

Gratner/iStock by permissionHuman beings. What are we going to do with ourselves? We are born fixers. And I mean literally, born, as in since the dawn of time. When there were cracks in those cave walls, you can be sure we were there with our primitive spackling tools to patch them right up. Well, OK, home improvement was not quite the priority on the honey-do list, what with the more immediate issues—predatory birds, lions, poisonous snakes, the occasional out of hand neighbor. The kinds of things we had to fix back in the day were life and death. And thus it was in that milieu of danger at every turn that our inner alarm system—our fight-or-flight responsiveness to threat—developed. So while we have the amygdala, the C.O.O. of the brain’s alarm system, to thank for bringing us to this day there’s a bit more she wrote. Sensitivity (reading the fine print of a situation) is not the amygdala’s strong suit. So when we find ourselves feeling threatened not by a large bird with claws, but none other than our adult daughter standing before us upset about a non-large bird issue like, maybe, just for the sake of argument…having a stressful situation at work, it’s the amygdala showing up first that instantly makes us feel like our child’s distress is a fire to put out. In those moments that call for empathy, compassion and soothing, the amygdala shouting fire! is more of the problem than the solution.

I know this well. As an anxiety therapist, I speak to patients all day about ways to override and reset the amygdala when the proverbial snake turns out to be a harmless stick. And though I try to live by what I teach, there are those moments where my blindspots are pointed out to me. Like by my daughter and the aforementioned situation at her job, right away I picked up my spackler and got to work. I jumped in with all the different ways my daughter might look at the situation, all the different things she could do to make it better. In fact, I had so much to say about her situation, I’m not sure she could get a word in edgewise. What she wanted, in her words, was empathy, period, and I handed her a to do list. Gotcha.  

Whether we are talking to our children, our coworkers, our partners, even ourselves, I think my daughter hit the nail on the head. When we are upset we want empathy, period. Not the laundry list of things we need, could, or should do. Not yet, and maybe not ever. At the very least we need to pause and listen, the longer the better, before we ask if those spackling tools that our primitive instincts are tapping behind our backs are actually being requested.

How do we do this? How do we tell our amygdalas to send the fire trucks back to the station? How do we turn off our revving engines running circles around an unsuspecting troubled person who has come to us for comfort, but is getting more upset by our (even with a Ph.D. in psychology) bungled response? What’s really the fire? We need to take charge of our own discomfort with someone else’s discomfort and realize our desire to solve things or to make invisible the things we can’t solve is…. drumroll please… our own problem—not the other person’s. The person who is in need of soothing was not in emergency mode until they were inundated with our to-do list for them. Not exactly what we were going for. If we as helpers can punch in the security code of our own amygdalas, do an override, take a breath, and remind ourselves that what is needed from us is not the brave slaying of dragons and such, but sometimes the braver offering of compassionate words or simply saying “yes—that sounds hard,” or “I’m sorry that’s happening,” or EVEN: “Tell me more about it” (because our to do list essentially conveys: tell me less) we will be a different kind of hero. We are protecting ourselves and each other from our desire to fix and in so doing, will find a place where understanding ripples out and smooths the way for all of us.

And when each of us forgets about this idea, which we inevitably will given our jumpy amygdalas, let’s just agree to turn to each other and say, “Empathy, period, please!”  Or… if you prefer… “Hold the spackler, please.” Namaste.

©2018 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.  www.tamarchansky.com

Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. is author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want and Freeing Your Child from Anxiety.