“Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.”
― Leslie Jamison, U.S. author (1983- )
Me, My Husband, and My Shoes!
I have sitting shoes, training shoes, and sensible shoes.
My sitting shoes are the pretty ones with very high heels that I can wear for longer than thirty seconds only on the occasions that my pain threshold is extremely high, or when I can ignore my feet completely. If I wear them any longer than that, I look like a giraffe with broken knees!
My training shoes are the bright pink or oranges ones I wear to the gym, to walk, and to run. I’d like to wear them all the time, but I’m quite short and they don’t make me look as tall, thin, or statuesque as I’d like.
Sensible shoes are the ones my mother would be proud of. They’re in between my training shoes and my “giraffe” shoes and are slightly boring.
When we were younger, my husband really used to like it when I wore giraffe shoes. And I’m not talking about the occasional evening out, he wanted me to wear them even when we went shopping!
Walk a Mile in My Shoes… or Just Try to Stand Up!
Initially, I wanted to impress him with my giraffe shoe-wearing skills. I walked through the shopping malls like a queen! But I often collapsed on the floor behind closed bathroom doors. I’d take off the ridiculous shoes, fan my feet, pray for strength, and respond to emails. After all, sending emails was a valid excuse not to be walking!
As time passed, I started to resist, yet he always “persuaded” me to wear heels, and told me how smart I looked.
Eventually, tired of struggling while he strolled around in soft, comfortable moccasins, I insisted that he put on fancy trousers and formal shoes for a shopping trip. We were back home from the mall in exactly 44 minutes! A plan started taking shape in my mind…
The next time we went shopping, I told him I “needed” shoes, and we went to a beautiful boutique, full of incredibly expensive shoes. No doubt fearing the damage to his credit card, he didn’t hear me asking the assistant for a much larger size of high heels than I normally wear.
The shop assistant obliged without batting an eyelid. I put the box in front of my husband and asked sweetly, “Love, just as a joke, why don’t you try these on?” He looked at me in disbelief. “Come on,” I said, “don’t be a spoil sport!”
Learning Empathy in High Heels
A tortured little laugh spilled from his lips when he stood up. He struggled to walk just a few steps from the chair and back. When he took off the shoes, he looked at me and said, “I had no idea how much it hurt your feet to wear heels like those.”
After we left the shop, he suggested we should go for coffee. He apologized again, and suggested we go and buy some smart sneakers so that I’d be more comfortable for the rest of the day.
Since that day, my husband tells me not to wear shoes that aren’t comfortable to walk in. He regularly reminds me to put flat shoes in the car in case we want to go shopping after church, or go for a stroll after dinner at a restaurant. He has learned empathy!
How to Empathize With Me
If you ask random people on the street what empathy means, many of them are likely to tell you that it means to put yourself in another person’s shoes. But have they really done that?
Recently, I’ve felt “empathied out.” It’s not that I’m tired of empathy, but I’m frustrated that people often don’t care enough to find out how to empathize with someone else.
During last Friday’s #MTtalk, we asked how people want others to empathize with them. Here are the questions we asked, and some of the responses:
Q1. How much is empathy a conscious or unconcious reaction, and does that matter?
@itstamaragt Some people are naturally empathetic, but it doesn’t mean those who aren’t can’t work on their empathy skills. I believe people make a conscious decision when applicable, but a subconscious decision when emotions are involved.
@KrisGiere Empathy is intentional. Whether or not someone is more naturally inclined to empathize may be subconscious, but to act on it is intentional.
Q2. Is empathy a selfless or a selfish reaction? Please explain.
Contrary to what we might want to believe, empathy isn’t always selfless reaction.
@nymelonballer This is where the rubber meets the road. If it’s simply recognizing someone’s emotion, then it can be selfish. If it’s caring and commiserating, then it can be selfless. This is where I struggle with how much is innate versus what can be taught.
@MarkRyanPod It’s the reaction to understanding. Having the actual knowledge of what someone is going through, and the willingness to sit beside them and be silent until they are ready to let you in.
Q3. What kind of empathy have you received mostly?
There are three levels of empathy: cognitive empathy (understanding), emotional empathy (feeling), and empathic concern (taking action). It’s clear, though, that we don’t all require the same type or amount of empathy.
@Midgie_MT I’ve received emotional empathy, where others have connected to me on an emotional level and the feelings I have felt.
@BrainBlenderTec I don’t require a lot of empathy, as most people are just intimidated until they get to know me. And then it’s more loyalty than anything.
Q4. Do you prefer privacy, politeness or empathy? Why?
Your preference probably depends on the context and circumstances. Here’s another way of looking at it:
@GenePetrovLMC If someone is closer to me, I would appreciate more empathy. Someone who is more or less a stranger – I’d prefer privacy. Some where in between (an acquaintance) politeness would work.
@BRAVOMedia1 Privacy & politeness should be together with empathy: when you care, you also respect.
Q5. Is there a line for you where receiving empathy becomes uncomfortable? Why is that?
@JusChas That line is when you empathize with what you know to be true about my situation, but then you attempt to be my therapist and dive deeper. Big no.
@harrisonia Yes! When someone is showing me empathy, they shouldn’t ask probing questions. They should ask general questions of concern that allow me to voluntarily share as much/little as I’d be comfortable with at that moment.
Q6. When have you felt patronized by empathy? What happened?
@MicheleDD_MT When I was diagnosed with cancer. People who had little interaction with me dropped by my office and started crying. Not helpful and I felt their response was more a display of pity than understanding what I was going through.
@Yolande_MT I feel patronised when someone tries to become a coach or counsellor and “fix” me or the situation. Their intent is usually good, but their sensitivity meter is out of whack.
Q7. What might be the best way to respond to unhelpful empathy?
@Jim_Easter Figure out if it is clumsy or nasty; clumsy gets compassion and education, nasty gets short shrift.
@bentleyu With an honest dialogue. At its core, empathy is communication, honesty and trust. Apply those principles in dealing with the situation. Open up and let them know.
Q8. Which is most helpful: feeling empathy or showing empathy?
@MarkC_Avgi IMO, you must feel empathy to properly show it. Feeling it means little to the one who needs it, if you do not show it.
@33ang33lcuddles Showing empathy is more effective, but it has to start with feeling. Sometimes it’s not easy to know how to show empathy, especially if you don’t know the full story.
Q9. How can you be “tuned in” to how someone wants to receive empathy?
@TheCraigKaye Ask them, and then actively listen.
@carriemaslen The simple answer to this question is to listen, look for clues, and ask! Also following “The Golden Rule” [treat others as you wish to be treated yourself] is always a good practice.
Q10. How can you create a culture where people know how to empathize with one another?
@MikeBarzacchini The calmness of just being with someone, of being present and fully listening, often radiates a deep energy of empathy. Truly listening to someone may be a most radical empathetic act.
@blondepreneur Regularly reflect how and where we can improve our empathy, and have regular check ins with ourselves too see if we are being too tough on ourselves too as well as others. It’s a daily process and practice.
To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat, here.
When working with people, you have to develop sensitivity to know when to let go of issues. You also have to allow yourself to let go of things that you’ve been holding on to. During our next #MTtalk we’re going to discuss knowing when to let go. We’d like to know what you find most difficult to let go of. Please vote in our Twitter poll, here.
In the meantime, here are some resources relating to the topic we discussed: