By Jeremy Dion, Licensed Professional Counselor
My 7-year-old daughter came home from school the other day and told me that she just had the “worst day of her life.” To be fair, this is not exactly an uncommon routine in our household, and we average two to three “worst days ever” per month. On this particular day, she went into detail about a friend who didn’t want to play, a teacher who didn’t understand, and an art project that did not come out the way she had hoped.
As she’s sharing all this, I listen and give her my undivided attention. When she finishes, there’s a pause. I breathe. This next moment is pivotal. It’s the moment where I’m going to respond. And how I respond is going to be determined by two things—first, and most importantly, my own internal state. Am I calm, cool, and connected? Or am I stressed, rushed, and distracted? Do I feel empathy or am I too preoccupied to connect? We’re usually somewhere in between, though most of us think we’re less stressed than we actually are.
The second factor that will influence my response involves my perception of the events that just unfolded. When my daughter is telling me about the hardships of her day, do I see it as an openhearted act of vulnerability on her end, and an opportunity for connection between us? Or do I see it as a bit dramatic, mostly complaining, and symptoms of a bad mood I’d like to change?
Feeling Calm Allows Us to Feel Empathy
When I’m feeling more calm and grounded, I have more capacity to feel empathy — to dig into the hard stuff. My tolerance for discomfort expands, which is always helpful. But if my system is more stressed, I am inclined to shut down her uncomfortable feelings, because I’m less willing to feel my own.
My cultural conditioning often encourages me to be “helpful” to my daughter by pointing out the bright side of her story, trying to add the silver lining to her “worst day ever.” Because that’s helpful, right? It’ll make her feel better. In this mode, I’m inclined to say something that begins with, “Well at least…” Or I may try to fix her problem by trouble-shooting it: “Did you try…” Or, “What can you do next time so that…” It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking these are helpful responses. And the truth is that they can be. But only after I’ve completed a crucial and often overlooked step: Empathy.
The simplest definition of empathy involves recognizing the emotions of another person, and feeling with them. Showing empathy is a vulnerable choice. In order to truly connect with my daughter in this moment I have to connect with that part of myself that knows these feelings – those parts of me that know first hand what it’s like to feel left out, misunderstood, and disappointed.
The Four Qualities of Empathy
For a more nuanced explanation of empathy, I look to the work of nursing scholar Teresa Wiseman. She highlighted these Four Qualities of Empathy:
1. Perspective taking – recognizing this perspective as their truth.
2. Staying out of judgment.
3. Recognition of emotion in others.
4. Communicating that recognition.
Empathy sends the message that I hear you, I’ve felt those feelings, and they’re painful. I can feel them now. You’re not alone. I’m so glad you’re shared this with me. When I’m able to respond with that type of empathy, we share a connection that wouldn’t happen otherwise. And often times, that connection is enough, and nothing more is needed.
As author and researcher professor Brene Brown says, “The truth is that rarely will a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”