Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Sympathy and Empathy

I imagine that some of you have heard of or are familiar with Brene Brown. If you're not, might I suggest that you put her on your radar?  Brene is the type of writer and speaker that gets under your skin in the best possible way and makes you want to be a better person. She embraces the flaws that we all posses and sees past them.

I was so, so delighted when my principal, Holly, shared the video below with our staff. While it might seem a bit disjointed to be showing the clip to an elementary school staff, it was a means through which we discussed our Putting Kindness First mission for the year. Every single person in the building- students, teachers, administrators, custodians, office staff- comes to school with a suitcase full of "stuff". Perhaps we only see the carry-on items in our building, but that suitcase is chock-full of other items that we are not privy to. Therefore, rather than jumping to conclusions and closing off relationships, sometimes a kind listening ear can forge a relationship that might not otherwise blossom.

That being said, when people share difficult things that are happening in their lives, there's an often inherent desire to start "silver-lining" the situation (a made-up verb that Brene embraces). Often this starts with, "At least......". When we do this, we are driving a disconnect between two people and the situation at hand. What's strange is that I found MYSELF saying this to others when my own father passed away out of the blue. "At least he didn't suffer....." was a phrase that seemed to be on auto-tune after some time. I can acknowledge to myself that this was 110% a survival mode tactic in those moments when I could not look myself in the mirror and say that my dad was here and then he was not. I continue to cut myself a lot of slack on this because, hello, grief very much includes survival mode at times, but I've been extremely cautious in using this phrase with others.

There are many moments in life when we are truly at a loss for words. Someone shares something with you that is so personal and so beyond our comprehension in the moment that you literally cannot form words to come out of your mouth. Often, that results in words spewing out that probably should not. Instead, think about taking a moment to look that person in the eye and say, "I'm truly at a loss for words.....I hope that I can be here for you in a way that you need me......I know it took a lot of strength and bravery to share this with me....I'm holding you close in my heart."  The truth is, those "At least...." phrases and those "You'll get past this" phrases minimize the gravity of a person's feelings and, frankly, it is harmful to all of those involved in the conversation.

Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.

I'll never forget the day that I went back to school after my dad died. As part of that survival mode that I spoke about earlier, I clung so, so hard to what I knew and arrived at school on a Monday after my dad had passed on Thursday unsure of what to expect, but knowing that it was where I needed to be. Naturally, there were a lot of sympathetic and empathetic conversations that day. One does stick out in particular, though, and it's when my co-worker Julie came into my room, hugged me, and just started crying. She didn't know what to say and she didn't have to say anything at all for me to feel her empathy and connection in that moment. She probably knew that nothing she could say would make the situation better and that sometimes you just need to cry it out with another human being. I'm forever grateful for that moment, Julie!

Empathy and sympathy are something that I still struggle with to this day and I imagine that a lot of us feel this way. It's very natural to want to "fix" a situation or make it seem "better" than it is. However, I truly believe in the power of human connection and oftentimes empathy is all someone needs to feel and fuel that connection.

1 comment: