Hard Conversations Begin with Empathy

Dare to Lead by Dr. Brené Brown

A few weeks ago some reminded me about this post when they added a comment: Dicey Conversations. I’ve been thinking about this and “hard conversations” and conflict a lot lately. The secret to having a great hard conversation is starting with empathy. I’m continuing my pull from Dr. Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead today to talk about some steps for empathy.

A few things to note:

  1. Empathy fuels connection.
  2. Empathy drives out shame.
  3. Empathy is about feeling with someone.
  4. Empathy isn’t about fixing.

When we are shown empathy, we connect to another person. They feel seen, heard, and loved. Their pain becomes more than just something that’s happened to them, instead it’s something we can walk with them through. We get into the hole and walk through the pain with them.

This is a great illustration of empathy.

The research says that empathy consists of five skills:

  • Perspective Taking: We choose to take off our own lens and see the world as the other person might see it. We connect not with the exact experience, but instead with the same feeling that we’ve experienced before. About ten years ago a co-worker’s husband died very unexpectedly. Another woman was trying to connect with her afterward and said, “I know exactly how you’re feeling.” This woman was a single women who had never been married and didn’t have children. Exactly was a bit of a stretch. My co-worker shared this story with me following it up with, “She really doesn’t get me at all.” This miss at empathy drove a deeper wedge between them rather than the intended connection.
  • Being Nonjudgmental: When we stay out of judgment, we are refraining from telling this person how they should feel, judging their (perceived by us) under- or over-reaction to the situation, and letting them know that we hear them. Maybe someone comes to you with an experience of failure or sin in the faith, ensuring you don’t respond with, “Yup, you really messed up big time and there’s not a lot you can do to fix it. So glad I’ve never been there.” That’s not empathy, that doesn’t drive connection, and it doesn’t let that other person know you’ve seen them.
  • Understanding the Other Person’s Feelings: This involves being aware of the large range of emotions that humans can feel. It’s more than happy, mad, sad, and glad. The array of human emotions is wide and vast, and the more we understand all of the emotions God gave us, the more we can connect with others. Here are some resources for understanding emotions including their subtle nuances better: List of Core Emotions, The Feelings Wheel (my favorite), and Emotional Equations Book (my current evening reading, truly fascinating and I’m only two chapters in).
  • Communicating Your Understanding: When we’ve taken note of what the other person is feeling, we then communicate our understanding of their emotion. You could say something like “What I hear you saying is that you’re frustrated.” This gives them an opportunity to say, “Yeah, that’s what I’m feeling” or “No, not at all, I’m more disappointed because…” If they aren’t sure what they’re feeling, or you aren’t sure what you’re feeling most of the time I’d encourage you to practice by asking “What am I feeling?” throughout the day. Increase your emotional literacy and understand the different nuances of the different emotions. I can say that for me this has been transformational in my life.
  • Mindfulness or Paying Attention: This involves paying attention to what the person is saying, the emotions they’re feeling, and sitting there with them in it. Empathy calls us to hold space for someone else to sit in their feelings. Not to over-react, but to feel the feeling, understand why they’re feeling this way, and establishing what they need to continue.

We cannot be successful at transforming our parishes if we lack empathy. This is a skill that most of us need practice with, and a willingness to get it wrong. When we do, we acknowledge that we missed the mark, apologize, and ask to start over and do better next time.Let’s transform with empathy … there are opportunities for empathy every single day, probably 15 times a day, unless you’re still quarantined at home alone. If that’s the case, I’d encourage you to practice on yourself. Role play a conversation where you can show up with strong empathy skills.

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