After my teenage introduction to empathy I proceeded along in life and more growth. I did try to be empathetic with various individuals and although I was better than before I realize now that I was still a novice. It wasn’t until I was 30 years old that I got my next lesson in empathy. I hate saying there are empathy skills because that goes against the whole grain of humanness. Skill and empathy shouldn’t be in the same sentence.
I had joined for a short while a group that tried to help people with their problems. This volunteer group was a group that was started around the local university in the 1960’s. Their basic modus operandi was to take anonymous calls from people who seemed to be immediately experiencing problems or depression. There was a rotating crew to handle the phone lines. A caller might get a different person every time. Dependency was to be discouraged but if people needed to call back again then so be it.
When this group was started it was at the height of Viet Nam, political upheaval, emerging drug use and experimentation, the arrival of birth control and with it free love. Broken relationships, bad drugs trips, social disorientation were common everyday events. The calls were anonymous for both caller and receiver. Part of the reason was to ensure confidentiality. The other reason was to help people open up and also to keep people from being dependant. If its anonymous it goes to the grave and no one knows. I heard about the group and it sounded like a great helping and learning opportunity.
I attended the two-day orientation and sat down in the auditorium. Methods, rules and expectations were discussed for the potential members. I was assimilating these things when the next most important life lesson in empathy occurred before me. They proceeded with onstage demonstrations of caller/responder episodes. Since it was visual and there didn’t need to be any phones they had the caller/responder sit back to back. This aided us, the audience, because we still wanted to see them speaking but also it helped us concentrate on the voices as supposed phone calls.
I listened to the first caller and she was having a relationship problem. She was pouring her heart out and the responder was giving these short, terse answers. Now this is where the first disconnect with me came in. I didn’t understand what was going on. Truth to tell, the problem as I saw it was that the responder didn’t give any answers and I didn’t understand that. As a man I’m a problem solver, a fixer, a repairer of anything with only baling wire and duct tape. In a quick man’s synopsis I surmised that she should “dump the bum.”
The second caller/responder came on. This caller was “higher than then a giraffe.” A drug induced dialogue ensued. The responder basically inquired on the caller’s safety and security. He asked what drugs the guy was on and if he was going to be OK. The druggie rambled on and he sounded like he was lonely. Again the quick, furtive responses were given and then the caller finally hung up. In my mind I couldn’t figure out why the responder didn’t say “Hey dummy, don’t do drugs. They’re against the Law.”
The third caller came on. He said that he sometimes contemplates suicide. In fact though he was still far from suicide. The responder made the inquiry if that was an immediate condition(possible suicide) and found out it wasn’t. Again the responder replied in short “Uh huh” answers. He listened and listened and listened. There was no solution. This guys life was a mess. I didn’t know what I would’ve said. Finally the call ended. It did appear that the caller was feeling differently after the call.
The mediator came out and asked what had happened, did anyone notice anything. A woman to my left said “He didn’t gave any answers.” Everyone starts talking, “yeah or neh.” I’m thinking it’s a failure, where’s the helping hand. As the sound tones down the mediator says, “We don’t provide answers. That’s Ann Landers job. What we do is try to give people their voice, we let them talk and that’s why they called. They want someone to listen to them without judgement, acrimony, or fear.” My second “empathy lesson” light was coming on.
The Volunteer Group’s job was helping people through right now, to carry on to tomorrow. They didn’t believe in answers because of several reasons. Each human being should discover their own answers. Frequently no one right answer exists. None of the people were licensed psychologists or counselors. To provide a so-called answer was against the law. Instead references and directions were made for various forms of professional help if people were open to it.
To summarise the Group’s philosophy, they Validated people and they recognized their problems as real and urgent. The means to reply wasn’t to give answers, it was to listen and communicate the worth of the individual. Their talking style was to say, “I understand, I feel for you, you’re important, your feelings are important, your ideas are important.” That doesn’t mean that they never used the NO word, they did. The object was to allow the caller to Vent their immediate feelings, to somehow come to grips with their own problem after a sometimes emotional discourse and then the caller could begin to SOLVE their own problems. Frequently it would never make it that far.
What I learned was that solutions were out. The other person’s thought’s and feelings are just about more important than anything in the world. To facilitate this dialogue certain words and sentences are used to compel the caller to talk EVEN MORE. The best way to get them talking is for the responder to talk almost as little as possible and to use momentum pushing words. I’ve made list of the phrases and words and sentences that best accomplish this. These are not my own but they do push the caller along. These are the MAGIC WORDS:
you don’t say!
tell me again!
for true! (a southern expression)
what did you do next?
that must have been terrible, (or heartbreaking, difficult, taxing, frustrating, unbearable, embarrassing)
I hear that!
you feel how?
I’ve done that too, many people have!
me too! (indicating their not alone)
Each sentence is about 5 words or less. It’s important for the caller to go through the emotional catharsis first and then IF a solution can be found by the CALLER they can make it their own. Most of our solutions will be useless. Again as I stated in another of my posts this is why therapy takes so long. The therapist is trying to guide the patient to their own conclusions. This is the only way they can own them.
“To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation.”
– Chinese Proverb