I had a meeting with an administrator at school the other day. She said, “Perception is reality,” when we were speaking about my son and his experiences of late. She followed that up with, “which means to me that we have to reframe the way we think regarding him, and allow for him to have that reality.”
I said, “Ok, good! It’s heartening to hear you say that, because all along in this situation, he’s been made to feel as though he’s off-base and yet he has said to me, quite clearly and consistently, ‘this is how it feels to me…’ and so while I’m thrilled to hear him stand up for himself, I’ve secretly feared that The Big School Machine would see it differently… that he’d be compelled to fight for his perception. But your stance is quite empathetic, isn’t it? That is progress.”
She smiled. She got it. We were on the same track.
I smiled, inside and outside. Her actions, she assures me, are reflective of her appreciation of my son’s appeals.
I’ve been raising my boys to be candid, speak up for themselves, be real, be fair, be kind, but above all, to be strong. As like me, they are imperfect. We screw up, sometimes in an epic fashion. But we amend. We own it.
I’ve told them that not everyone, in fact most people, will be unwilling to agree with their perceptions, and that they also will likely not always agree with other peoples’ perceptions. That disagreement, however, needn’t look like war. That disagreement, is often a bridge to greater understanding and allowing of The Other, so long as we are willing to get out of our own way.
I have a yoga student who amazes me. She’s started a blog, at my suggestion, because she has a very clear voice and she is super energetic. She, like you and I and the guy down the street, is a unique individual. She has an amazing and humbling story, which she has cast aside as something she doesn’t want to focus on, but I see it differently. I’ve absolutely allowed her her own opinion, but her survival of a catastrophic car wreck and subsequent traumatic brain injury and recovery and now being a yoga devotee, has leveled me flat.
She has this thing though, as we all do, about aging and perfection and reality… and then the at-times Oprah-imposed thrust of gratitude for our ever-present abundance. She wrote about it here, “The Art of Perfectionism.” I read that post and as much as I wanted to say, “you’re awesome! let it go! don’t you see how incredible you are?!” I had to sit back, take a few breaths and say… “Ok.”
Enter: empathy. “Feeling with people.”
I’ve read Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. I did a 30 Days of Brené Brown blog challenge. I’ve learned a lot about myself through that and other challenges, actual, life challenges.
Empathy, as Brown explains it, assures that we not necessarily have a personal first-hand experience with the situation. That’s impossible, anyway, as we are all wired differently and also have entirely discrete appreciations (i.e., “How do I know the blue you see is the same blue I see, man?”) which have shaped our perceptions.
Brené says quite clearly, “rarely can a response make something better; what can make something better, is a connection.”
What empathy does require, is the simple awareness that someone else is going through Something and that our appreciation of that other person’s Something is shared. Then, due to that awareness, right there!: a connection, no matter how ephemeral or even shallow, is made.
The Something needn’t be a “bad” Something! It can be an engagement or a divorce, a new job or a firing, or a lottery winning or a bankruptcy, or a book deal or a scandal.
Our appreciation can appear as simple as “Wow! That’s some news. I have no personal experience with that, but I can appreciate that it’s a lot to take in…”
And you’re DONE. Empathy accomplished. The other person is heard and their Something is Acknowledged — NOT EVEN VALIDATED, just acknowledged. Y’dig? (And if they need more from you on the matter, that’s on them… you don’t have to give more.)
That empathetic moment is quite simple — yet it’s one of the hardest things to perform.
Why? Why is it so hard? WHYYYYYY???
Because we have to get in the way.
The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.
We have to be right.
We have to compare.
We have to fix.
We have to feel small inside.
We have to fight.
We have to prove otherwise.
We have to feel less-than or more-than.
We have to somehow, even though it’s a direct violation of empathy, find some form or relevance of that information, that Something, to fit into OUR LIVES or we risk feeling…
Which we are… at that moment, because The Something isn’t about us. It seldom is and it likely won’t ever be about us, THANKFULLY (for we have enough going on in our lives, right? but we don’t want to think about our lives… we want to think about other peoples’ lives so we don’t have to think about our lives… i do it all the time…)!
It’s about the Owner of The Something.
All this act of … sharing requires is that We Hear and See The Other. That’s all. And maaaaaaybe… just maybe we can see ourselves –identify the need within ourselves to have Our Own Thing– in that other person? Just a smidge? Eeency weeny itty bitty bit? And what’s more: let them have Their Own Thing? That’s a connection right there.
So I was thrilled when the administrator said, “his perception is reality and we have to take that into consideration; just because we don’t have that experience, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t…”
And my heart sang. LA LA LA LA LAAAAAAAAA! Your blue might not be the same blue as my blue, but I trust that you know I have my own blue and I trust that your blue is great for you!
So remember: when The Other shares Something, you don’t have to go digging into your data vault of relevance to see if you’ve got something better, or similar, or worse or bigger or smaller.
You can just sit there and say, “Wow. That’s some news. I have no personal appreciation of that [BECAUSE I AM NOT YOU AND THAT NOT BEING YOU REQUIRES THAT I GET OUT OF MY OWN WAY TO SEE THAT YOU ARE SEPARATE, a’hem] but I can appreciate that it might [NOT “will”] take some time to adjust to that…”
Try it. And here’s a great thing: just being empathetic with that person doesn’t mean you’re on their bus. It doesn’t mean you’ve attached yourself or that you’ve taken a blood oath of permanence. It just means — AT THAT MOMENT — that you’re appreciating their situation.
So can you do that? Can you just… allow someone else to have Their Own Something?
Here’s the best video I’ve ever seen about this.
Love the message, love the video. Trying to figure out how to introduce it to the right person here at work. I had learned the Zig Ziegler message years ago and ever since then have tried to remember to listen to hear the other person. I do forget. A lot. But I try. I do wish that video had been around years ago. I think of all the times I said the wrong thing (I know people say it’s not wrong if you’re trying to help. but as I tell the kids, your idea of helpful may not be someone else’ idea of helpful). I’m the one with the silver lining wand. I am happy to snap my wand and switch to a gentle phrase of connection.
It’s ok to not have a reply or a comment. And it’s ok to mess one up and clarify it later. If what’s in the heart is true, then the words will find their way out, even if, “I don’t know what to say, but I know you’re not alone…” Is all one can muster.
I pay A LOT of attention to the words I use and the intention of the message. Perhaps more than I should; sometimes I fail miserably. The moral for me is that I try. I try to connect. And if I fail, I try again. That’s what’s so great about life: we are given endless opportunities for do-overs, even if we have exhausted our chances with certain people. We can always try better the next time.
As for your colleague: just introduce it. Just say, I read this blog. What do you make of it? Then see where it goes. You’ll never know until you try. Be fearless. I’ve seen you be fearless. 🙂
After reading this I realized something important. When I am listening to someone I tend to feel right along with them. If they feel fear, I feel fear. If they feel shame, I feel the shame. I think this is why I sometimes find empathy so exhausting. The other thing is letting those feelings go. It’s like I absorb them and they don’t even belong to me. I would like to be in that moment of connection…and then out of it. Instead I am like a sponge and then I walk around with it all day. This is the reason I decided not to become a mental health counselor. I think it’s a boundary issue in some way, but I am not sure. It also could be just the way I am. I think this is one of the reasons I can’t have too many friends at a time and need a lot of time to myself.
I am really grateful for your school administrator. What a huge difference that sentence made!