The holiday season is in full swing and, despite what the commercials and Christmas specials portray, there’s a good chance of negative family dynamics getting stirred up this time of year. Perhaps you’re thinking:
- Do I have to hear that story again?
- Do we have to repeat that argument again?
- Do I have to listen to the same snide remarks again?
There is a different way to respond. Take, for example, this story:
Trainers took the feelings and needs cards to a local fair one weekend and laid them out on tables in our tent. Then as people came by, we invited them to describe a recent situation that was stimulating negative feelings. The person was instructed to pick up the feelings cards that resonated for them and put them in the blank space in the middle of the table. The trainer would then choose needs cards to guess what was going on for the person and put those in the middle as well. The individual was asked to identify their three most important needs and the trainer reflected this information back in an empathy statement. For example, “When your mother said she didn’t want you to date Marcos, it seems you felt angry and resentful because you need respect, understanding and autonomy. Is that right?”
The boyfriend of one trainer watched this process all day long, but didn’t participate. After he went home, he received a phone call from his cousin, who habitually bent his ear with her dramas. Rather than listening with his usual feeling of resentment, this time he was curious about what was really going on and tried guessing her feelings and needs. Voila! The conversation shifted; she gained new awareness and he learned to connect rather than tolerate.
Empathy is not niceness. It’s not just agreeing with or listening to someone. It’s also not fixing them, or comforting them, or reasoning with them.
Empathy is that connection that makes someone feel like their experiences and emotions are heard and understood. And one of the most effective and efficient ways to do this is guessing their feelings and needs. (Click here for a list of feelings and needs.)
The next time your brother picks a fight, or your mom says something negative, or your aunt brings up what happened when she was 20, try asking them if they were feeling _____ because they value (or need) ____________. Even if you guess wrong, the empathy will land, the charge will be taken out of the emotion and it may well shift the conversation.
Perhaps you can start a new holiday tradition for your family by giving each other empathy. It will bring a warm glow to your hearts that will last well beyond December 25.
P.S. December 31 is the last date you can make 2014 tax-deductible donations to your favorite change-making organizations. We need and appreciate your donations. Please donate today.