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Empathy for People Who Suck

Marya Degrow - OCL Alumni | Jun 07, 2018

When was the last time you effectively worked through a problem with someone when you approached them with an irritated or angry attitude?

Or maybe you weren’t angry, but found yourself frustrated when trying to reason with someone who was so wrapped up in their emotions they couldn’t see the logic of your message.

What is missing in these scenarios? 

Empathy.

When someone is being very emotional, it's easy for me to get pulled into their state of mind. I may focus on me and my failings, which causes me to get defensive. Or I may just be annoyed at their behavior or the time it’s taking away from the things I need to do. I want to tell them what’s wrong with them, get revenge, shout, and yell. That's our natural response. 

But for people who are experiencing powerful emotions, responses of anger, irritation, and annoyance will only ever be counter-productive. We need to look beyond our natural responses. OCL gives us tools to be more effective communicators. It will take more time and effort. But we need to make time for those who matter most in our lives.

We must think about when we have experienced overwhelming emotions and draw from those times to show empathy for the other person. When we take the focus off of how this person is hindering our lives, and instead think about how they may be feeling and listen with empathy, we can help them. Our attitudes of anger, annoyance, and resentment can melt away.

How do we show empathy? We want to identify what they are feeling and find a place in our lives where we felt a similar emotion. We may not have experienced their exact circumstance, but we can think of something similar so we begin to understand where they’re coming from. We want to see their situation as they see it, and feel it as they feel it. It may be illogical, exaggerated, or flat out wrong, but they need to work through that emotion before they can work through a logical solution.

Employing empathy has changed my relationship with my 9-year-old daughter, who, though often lovely, creative, and enthusiastic, can be very emotional and irrational. I found myself getting getting more and more frustrated as I wondered what I was doing wrong as a mom or what I could do to fix her. Instead I began to empathize with and help her understand her emotions. I resolved to stay with her as she worked through them. I took it as a challenge to help her, rather than a defeat of my brilliant parenting strategies (that weren’t working).

What has helped me greatly is to wait to approach her until I can come calmly. Sometimes that means she waits while I calm down. Getting angry has never helped bring about a peaceful resolution. I try to talk in an even, quiet tone of voice, and I often help her work through her emotion before I address other areas that may need correction. I also try to begin the conversation by reminding her that I’m on her side, that I’m trying to help her to be the best she can be.

Once we have talked through her emotions, I usually feel she’s ready to hear what I have to say and we can address the impact her behavior had on the family and what her consequences will be. Empathy doesn’t mean I need to agree with her behavior or that there are no consequences. Empathy simply lets her know that she has a safe place to work through her emotions with someone who is on her side.

Whether we’re 9 or 90, we all want to be listened to and understood. Some people can be more challenging to have empathy for, but if you want good relationships with family, friends, and co-workers, it’s a challenge that is worth taking on. How do you show empathy for people when you would rather yell?

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