Empathy Redefined

Empathy Redefined

To gain insight from experience I’ve acquired over the years and then to pass it along, that is satisfying. But, when applying such wisdom to events in my own life doesn’t work, that is sobering.

The wisdom: when another person’s point of view or behavior is problematic or upsetting, quiet the tendency to be reactive and stand in their shoes. Empathize. View the situation from their perspective. As a professional helping others, I can do this in a reasonably dispassionate way. And many times I’ve said: once you empathize, you can sympathize with their point of view.

Not always easy if I’m emotionally involved, but I thought I had even these situations figured out.

An example: My son and daughter-in-law divorced some years ago. I loved her dearly and still do. She lives far away so we only occasionally visit, but we continue to correspond and speak on the phone. Often she shares her concerns with me and our words flow easily, unless she makes a negative comment about my son. I understand, even empathize, but can simply ignore these words if they are written, or remain quiet if they are spoken, and attend to the rest of her message. She is a quick study, so takes my silence into account and we move on, each of us accepting a well-established boundary that only occasionally is crossed, but then renewed.

So empathy works, until it doesn’t.

Here’s what happened: I received an email message from a dear friend who lives some distance away, with whom I’ve maintained a close connection over the years. I consider both she and her husband intimate friends, he a former professional colleague of my husband. But now the wife wrote complaining bitterly about her husband’s behavior and attitude. The tone of her message clearly assumed my alignment with her, seeking both my sympathy and asking for my professional advice. I was upset and resented being drawn into their personal lives in this way and expected to take sides.

My initial reaction was not to respond at all, but soon I knew that totally ignoring her message would be too unkind a rejection.

After mulling it over, I shared my quandary with a trusted colleague: I could not simply accept the wife’s perception of events and offer sympathy and advice without feeling disloyal to the husband, nor was I willing to be drawn into the details of their intimate angst and make judgments about what went on.

As we talked, some new wisdom emerged: I was confusing empathy with the need to sympathize and become an actor in their play. Empathy, a willingness to understand, does not require agreement or even sympathy, only a readiness to hear and attempt to comprehend what someone has to say, not to embrace it. With that distinction clearly in mind, I was able to frame a heartfelt response that was empathic and not rejecting.

A bit wiser now, I stepped back into my own shoes. Taking care of myself, I also asked that I be seen only as a friend, which made giving professional advice to either of them untenable. An important boundary was established.