By Roman Krznaric
The big question is how we can get better at empathising – fully realise the potential wired into us by evolution – and put it to good use in our everyday relationships. And that’s something I’ve learned about not so much from science journals, but from being schooled in empathy as a father, a partner and a son.
My first empathy teachers have been my children, girl-boy twins who have recently turned five. I started observing their own empathic development as toddlers. At the age of around 18 months, if my son was crying, his sister would often try to comfort him by giving him her favourite toy dog. A kindly gesture, but not much use. Fast forward a year and when my son was in tears, his sister handed him his cherished toy cat. It worked and she knew it. I was witnessing the cognitive leap of empathy: my daughter was now able to escape her own viewpoint and understand what mattered from her brother’s perspective.
This empathic capacity to recognise that other people may have different feelings and needs from ourselves develops in most children by the age of two or three. Psychologists sometimes call it theory of mind. George Bernard Shaw was aware of its importance when he quipped, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you – they might have different tastes.” Empathy, I was learning, is about discovering those different tastes.
It was in my relationship with my father that I began to grasp the subtle power of empathy to deepen human connections. I’ve always got on well with my dad, but at the same time felt a distance because of the way he tends to keep his feelings to himself – pretty normal for someone of his generation. Things began to change when I embarked on a project to interview him about his life, growing up in the turbulence of Poland during the second world war, then emigrating to Australia (where I was born) as a refugee in the early 50s.
Over seven years, I recorded him talking about his experiences, and very gradually he began to open up. I started to discover how the war had affected him: it had split up his family, his mother had become mentally ill, he had witnessed terrible violence, he ended up having to beg for food. Stories I had never heard before.
As the years passed, our conversations delved into his struggles to make a life in Australia out of nothing to support his family, and the long months nursing my mother as she went in and out of hospital. It was only then, as he talked about his desperate efforts to keep her alive and to care for me and my sister during her illness, that I saw him cry for the first time in my life. I cried with him and it was the closest I’d ever felt to him. I’ll never forget it.
I learned two things from this family history project. First, conversation is one of the best ways of creating empathic bonds. Getting beyond superficial talk and discussing what really matters in our lives, and making ourselves emotionally vulnerable to others in the process, helps to spin invisible threads that bind people together.
What really astonished me, though, was that we can spend years knowing someone – in this case, my father – yet still not really know them, not understand the hidden thoughts inside their heads. Having spoken to my dad, and been able to look through his eyes, I now had a new appreciation of him. I could see how much he had suffered, and how much he had sacrificed for me; and that he was far more emotionally sensitive and attuned than I had ever imagined.
I also saw that his desire for a secure, suburban life – an attitude I had never understood and secretly disdained – was clearly rooted in his dislocated wartime childhood. He was a product of his life circumstances, just as I was of mine. Empathy was a sublime gift that lifted the veil from my eyes.
We all know, intuitively, that empathy is a tool for maintaining healthy relationships. We can all recall exasperated moments of arguing with our partners and thinking, “I wish he could just see my point of view!” or “Why can’t she understand what I’m feeling?” What are we asking for in these situations? Empathy, of course. We want them to step into our shoes, if only for a moment. That’s why couples counsellors and family therapists are so keen on encouraging empathic listening.
What does it take to listen empathically? The good news is that it’s a skill that can be learned, like riding a bike or driving a car. The trick is to make a habit of focusing mindfully and intently on understanding the other person’s feelings and needs (and it might just induce them to return the favour). My partner and I make a point of practising it – especially when we spot the tension rising between us – by trying to listen to each other without interrupting. And it usually works, preventing niggling annoyance from turning into serious resentment or full-blown arguments.
The psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, inventor of a conflict resolution method called Non-Violent Communication (NVC), points out that it can also help to paraphrase back to the other person what they have said, so they realise that you are really listening. “Studies in labour-management negotiations,” he says, “demonstrate that the time to reach conflict resolution is cut in half when each negotiator agrees, before responding, to accurately repeat what the last speaker said.”
Family arguments are not exactly workplace disputes, but I’ve found that Rosenberg’s approach really works with my kids. When one throws a tantrum, I try not to let the situation escalate to a point where I end up shouting at them (which happens, to my shame, all too often). Now I attempt to help them name their needs and feelings, perhaps asking, “Are you feeling cross because I can’t play with you right now?”
Then a near miracle can occur: they stop crying, they nod their heads, they tell me in a wobbly voice what they are feeling, I get a chance to explain my viewpoint, and everything calms down. It seems that on some fundamental level they just want to be listened to and understood (and don’t we all?).
Sometimes I’m wrong about why they are upset – a useful reminder of the mistaken assumptions we can make about others. It’s good to know this kind of empathic listening approach has found its way into plenty of parenting manuals, such as How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, which explicitly advises parents to put themselves in their children’s shoes, and acknowledge and help articulate their feelings.
A small measure of my empathic progress occurred last week when I saw my son gleefully pouring orange juice back and forth from one glass into another and making a huge mess all over the newly cleaned kitchen floor. Just when I was about to erupt at him, I stopped myself and asked curiously what he was up to.
“I’m doing science, Daddy. Look, the juice goes up higher in a thin glass.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that there could be serious scientific research going on. How could I get upset at him for turning the kitchen table into a pop-up physics lab?
I’m still struggling with empathy and trying to fully recover the circuitry in my brain that was latent in my childhood. I try to practise it not only in the kitchen, but out on the streets by having conversations with strangers, whether it’s chatting to the woman who sells me bread each morning or to a homeless guy I see regularly outside the supermarket. I meet interesting characters, I have surprising – and sometimes inspiring – encounters with people whose lives are vastly different from my own.
Ultimately, though, I have learned that empathy is the best glue for bonding a family together and forging the human relationships that make life worth living. And this matters in our age of hyper-individualism, where a barrage of free-market thinking, advertising propaganda and simplistic self-help is telling us we should busy ourselves with looking after No 1. Empathy is the antidote we need to create a world where we embrace a philosophy of “You are, therefore I am”.
Source : http://www.theguardian.com