Archive for June, 2011

Empathy(102)

June 28, 2011

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:

un huh

yep

really?

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!

why!

what then?

you feel how?

I’ve done that too, many people have!

me too! (indicating their not alone)

whose says?

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

When you listen, what do you Honor?

June 13, 2011
I’m trying to tell her but she just doesn’t get it.  She brushes me off. I explain again. I try to make her see how crucial this is to me.  I become more emphatic.  She ducks and dodges and weaves from my finest arguments.  Finally, I really am arguing and she is too.  Our voices get louder and more and more sarcasm enters the picture. Finally we both are in full-fledged battle.   We break apart……and lick our wounds. 
 
It’s taken me a long time to understand how most of us have learned to communicate with one another.  We learn from our parents. We learn from TV and the movies. But most of those experiences don’t really reinforce positive communication.  From the media, movies, and TV world, positive communication is not good drama or entertainment. A most striking example is the English Parliament where insults and embarrassment appear to be the standard fare. The resolutions appear disappointing if people resolve things without acrimony.
 
Frequently when people discuss things, their focus can be on winning, scoring points, laying down the gauntlet, embarrassing their opponent. Sometimes it can manifest as absolute and total denial.  People want to preserve their identity and their illusions, particularly about their own image. Especially in America where we definitely have a whole sports culture that says that winning is everything. Every issue is engagement.
 
In marriage, relationships, and sometimes the work world this doesn’t work well.  We can’t run over our spouse, dominate our kids, and do whatever we want. 
 
One way to have a more adult relationship is to be “continually & willfully mindful” of what we are saying and what we are doing. I call this CWM.   When I fix this thought with a little axiom I can then fix it in my mind.  This CWM can be hard to do since our upbringing has indoctrinated us by TV and Movies to act less than our best.
 
Recently(the past two years), I’ve been trying to not honor power, force, sarcasm, winning and self-righteous behavior. Not that I consciously honored them, that’s my point, but that I have been taught to honor them.  I’ve been trying to pay attention to how I talk, how I sound, what I mean when I say certain things. 
 
I’ve made a list of conflict resolution arguments that I stay away from. Most of this list if from TV, Movies and personal experience. It’s a lengthy list of “don’t do’s” for avoiding arguments and staying on track, getting what you want without resorting to boorish behavior. It’s difficult to do.
 
 
It’s important to not:  use sarcasm
It’s important to not: use knee jerk reactions,  in responses or baiting.
It’s important to not: change the venue, “Another thing you did…”          
It’s important to not: use name calling, “Doodlehead, Crazyman,…”
It’s important to not: use Demonizing or Polarization, “You did..,” Us vs Them
 
It’s important to not: use one-upmanship behaviour, “At least I am…….”
It’s important to not: use a negative tone, another form of sarcasm or disdain
 
It’s important to not: use a cavalier manner or attitude 
It’s important to not: use impunity, “That’s too small to even worry about!!”
It’s important to not: Gesticulate, arm waving, finger-pointing, giving the finger…
 
It’s important to not: use tagging, “Yea, Jim is that way.”  indirect positioning
 
It’s important to not: use inverse tagging, “I’m the good one.”
It’s important to not: use Short Shrifting to undermine others 
It’s important to not: use  Buckshot Charges, “You did A, B, C, D, & E.”
It’s important to not: use Blanket Denial, “It’s ALL WRONG, the WHOLE PACKAGE”
 
It’s important to not: use Stonewalling, (defensiveness) 
It’s important to not: use Stiff-Arming
It’s important to not: use “So What” Answers, People’s feelings, ideas & opinions count
 
It’s important to not: use Brush-Off Answers
It’s important to not: use Plausible Deniability
It’s important to not: use Punt, Fumble, Out oF Bounds Answers
or Arguments
It’s important to not:…………..
 
There are an endless supply of bad arguments and answers.
 
I’ve been trying to shift to good responses, earnest responses, and real answers to real questions.  I found that it wasn’t enough  to just agree with GOOD ANSWERS.  It wasn’t enough to just try to work with people.   I had to HONOR the sensible way out.  I have to lift that good measure up as an ideal and make it and keep it real.  
 
I realized from my list of conflict resolution arguments that it’s real easy to mess up and it’s extremely difficult to stay on track and resolve things honorably. 
 
The things that I HONOR now are civility, kindness, dialogue, others input, truth no matter the source.  It’s important to value the merit of ideas regardless of another’s high or low status.
I’m willing to take the short disappointments because now I’m playing the long game.  Not as a game but as a way to treat others and myself honorably and respectfully. 
 
P.S. This is a work in progress for me.
 
Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.
                                         -Mary Wortley Montagu
 
 
The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world is to be in reality what we would appear to be; all human virtues increase and strengthen themselves by the practice and experience of them.”
 
        -Socrates

Empathy(101)

June 4, 2011

I was thirteen. I knew as much as any other thirteen year old boy which was almost nothing. We were crossing the football practice field on the way to my house.  My friend Jon was recently broke up with his girlfriend.  “What am I going to do now?”, he said. The breakup was not his idea.  He had been sullen and quiet all day. “I was really starting to like her a whole lot!  Do you think I should call her again in about a week?”   I started to say “Yea” but I didn’t really know and in fact I actually didn’t really care.   I didn’t really know what to say so I punted and said, “Gee, I don’t know.” I didn’t know anything way back then. Jon clammed up again.

We finally get to my house and sit down at the kitchen table. My mother comes in, says ‘Hi”,  and proceeds to take care of the dishes she had washed earlier. I’m talking to Jon and he really isn’t responding. My mother senses that something is wrong and asks Jon point-blank  if he’s OK. He blurts out that “Nancy and I broke up with each other.   She wants to see other guys.”   My mother just looks at him and then she says, “Really, did you want to talk about it?” He says “Yea.”  She sits down and him and her start talking.  He starts talking about Nancy.

I just sat there.  My hands propping up my head, my eyes going back and forth with their words.   I didn’t really want to do this.  I didn’t even know it but I was afraid to “go there.”

At this point an amazing thing happened.  I started to see. I listened and saw that my best friend, Jon, actually had very strong feelings for Nancy.  I saw that my Mom knew how to talk to him and how to listen to him.  I saw my friend and I saw my Mom in a totally different light. They talked for about 40 minutes.  For sure my Mom had talked to me like that before but she was my Mom, that’s what Mom’s do.  I didn’t know she could talk that way with others or that it was even acceptable. 

 My Mom saw a need that wasn’t food, wasn’t warmth, and wasn’t security.   She saw that my friend needed some solace, he needed a balm.  Her words weren’t magic, in fact I can’t remember one sentence that stands out from my memory.  She somehow managed to find out how he was feeling. More importantly she allowed him to vent his feelings and to validate them. She listened to HIM.  She affirmed that many people have had the same feelings. She shared some of her own experiences and knowledge of boyfriend/girlfriend stories.

He still didn’t feel great, but I could tell that what my Mom had said, had made an impact on him.  Finally he turned to me and said “lets go back to my house.” We left and made our way across the practice field.  Jon turned to me about halfway across and said without judgement that “the way your Mom let me talk and explain myself was the way I wanted you to talk with me.”  At the time I fumbled some sort a of an apology.  Inside I knew he that was right. What good are your friends if they can’t lift you up or support you?   But for me at that young an age, I didn’t even know what the word was for what had happened.  Later I learned the word was Empathy. The word means “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another(Dictionary.com).”

My Mom showed me.

My friend told me.

The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.
                                                              -Meryl Streep