empathy | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Let’s Just Admit We’re Empaths

There’s been a lot of hubbub about a recent study on the relationship between men’s facial expressions and their attractiveness to women.  According to the study, when presented with photos of smiling and brooding men, the female test subjects said they were more attracted to the unhappy-looking men than to the happy-looking ones.

Not surprisingly, lots of people writing about the study concluded that, if they want to attract women, men should try to look tough or even ashamed, and avoid smiling.

Am I a Betazoid?

When I read articles that say I should put on some facial expression, or display some kind of body language, to get people to like me, I tend to feel a little alien.  I start to wonder:  am I the only one who finds it painfully obvious when a person is trying to look a certain way?

In my experience, when someone smiles, I can instantly tell if they’re really enjoying themselves, or just trying to look happy for my benefit.   By the same token, it’s immediately clear to me when someone’s trying to look puffed up and tough to hide their fear.

Though I’m a fairly empathic guy, I suspect I’m not the only person who can tell when someone’s hiding what they truly feel — what with me being human just like everybody else, and all.  But if that’s true, why is there so much advice out there about “winning body language”?  Don’t the people who give that kind of advice see how unhelpful it is?

No Empathy Allowed

What I’ve come to believe is that, in our culture, there’s a sort of unspoken agreement that we won’t admit how empathic we are.  I’ll pretend I don’t see that you’re unhappy, so long as you act like you don’t know I’m angry.  You’ll smile back at me, although you know my smile is fake, and I’ll do the same for you.

I think this unspoken agreement is rooted in our fear and distrust of each other.  We’re afraid that, if someone saw how we were really feeling, that might put us in danger.

After all, if you saw I was feeling sad or distressed, maybe you’d make fun of me, or attack me in my moment of weakness!  So, it seems easier for us all to pretend we can’t sense each other’s emotions — that way, nobody needs to feel unsafe.

The trouble with this unwritten rule is that it leaves a lot of us starving for real connection.  If I have to pretend I don’t know how you’re feeling, I can’t offer you compassion and a chance to talk about what’s going on, unless you come out and ask me to.  And to many people, asking for another person’s compassion sounds about as inviting as sticking their head in a lion’s mouth.

Are You Really “Fine, Just Fine”?

So, because I want to feel genuinely connected to people around me, I’ve taken to letting people know when something seems “off” to me — when I get the sense that their words and expression don’t match how they’re actually feeling.

I try not to put this in an accusing way, as if they’re lying or doing something wrong.  I just ask whether something’s going on that they’d like to talk about — “are you really ‘doing fine,’ or is something up?”  This isn’t always easy, and people don’t always want what I’m offering.  But much of the time, it creates a far deeper and more satisfying conversation.

There’s been a lot of hubbub about a recent study on the relationship between men’s facial expressions and their attractiveness to women.  According to the study, when presented with photos of smiling and brooding men, the female test subjects said they were more attracted to the unhappy-looking men than to the happy-looking ones.
Not surprisingly, lots of people writing about the study concluded that, if they want to attract women, men should try to look tough or even ashamed, and avoid smiling.
Am I a Betazoid?
When I read articles that say I should put on some facial expression, or display some kind of body language, to get people to like me, I tend to feel a little alien.  I start to wonder:  am I the only one who finds it painfully obvious when a person is trying to look a certain way?
In my experience, when someone smiles, I can instantly tell if they’re really enjoying themselves, or just trying to look happy for my benefit.   By the same token, it’s immediately clear to me when someone’s trying to look puffed up and tough to hide their fear.
Though I’m a fairly empathic guy, I suspect I’m not the only person who can tell when someone’s hiding what they truly feel — what with me being human just like everybody else, and all.  But if that’s true, why is there so much advice out there about “winning body language”?  Don’t the people who give that kind of advice see how unhelpful it is?
No Empathy Allowed
What I’ve come to believe is that, in our culture, there’s a sort of unspoken agreement that we won’t admit how empathic we are.  I’ll pretend I don’t see that you’re unhappy, so long as you act like you don’t know I’m angry.  You’ll smile back at me, although you know my smile is fake, and I’ll do the same for you.
I think this unspoken agreement is rooted in our fear and distrust of each other.  We’re afraid that, if someone saw how we were really feeling, that might put us in danger.  After all, if you saw I was feeling sad or distressed, maybe you’d make fun of me, or attack me in my moment of weakness!  So, it seems easier for us all to pretend we can’t sense each other’s emotions — that way, nobody needs to feel unsafe.
The trouble with this unwritten rule is that it leaves a lot of us starving for real connection.  If I have to pretend I don’t know how you’re feeling, I can’t offer you compassion and a chance to talk about what’s going on, unless you come out and ask me to.  And to many people, asking for another person’s compassion sounds about as inviting as sticking their head in a lion’s mouth.
Are You Really “Fine, Just Fine”?
So, because I want to feel genuinely connected to people around me, I’ve taken to letting people know when something seems “off” to me — when I get the sense that their words and expression don’t match how they’re actually feeling.
I try not to put this in an accusing way, as if they’re lying or doing something wrong.  I just ask whether something’s going on that they’d like to talk about — “are you really ‘doing fine,’ or is something up?”  This isn’t always easy, and people don’t always want what I’m offering.  But much of the time, it creates a far deeper and more satisfying conversation.

“Authentic Marketing,” Part 3: I Can Read Your Mind

It’s not just a line from the Alan Parsons Project — it’s the truth.

I know how you’re feeling and what your intentions are.  What’s more, everyone else does too.  Human beings are extremely empathic creatures.

I’m exaggerating a little — sometimes you can trick people into buying your facade.  But much of the time, when you think you’ve got us all fooled, you’re only fooling yourself.

People See The Concern, Not Just The Technique

I think this is the single most neglected fact in marketing literature.  The techniques in marketing books are usually about what you say and do:  the content of your “elevator pitch,” the right questions to ask sales prospects, how you should smile and use “confident body language,” and so on.

The assumption behind these techniques is that, when we’re with another person, the only thing we see is what they’re saying and doing.  But that’s simply not true.  We don’t just see their words and movements — we see the concerns that motivate what they say and do.

Networking events, which I’ve been attending a lot recently, are a great example.  I’ve had the experience many times of hearing someone give me an impressive-sounding speech about their business — but also being intensely aware of fear or sadness they’re feeling, and of any hidden agenda they have.

In other words, although I see their well-rehearsed words and actions, I also see the beliefs and emotions beneath those words and actions.  If they’re thinking “I’ve got to make this guy do what I want, or I’m not good enough,” or “I just want to get this conversation over with and leave this crappy event,” I can hear that just as clearly as I would if they said it out loud.

Let’s Just Admit We’re Mind-Readers

Why don’t “marketing gurus,” and personal development writers in general, acknowledge how empathic humans are?  Part of it, I think, is that many people are after a quick fix.  It’s easier to copy someone else’s words and body language than it is to take a deep look at what you really want and what you’re afraid of.  Thus, books and programs that teach us “the five sales tactics of successful people,” and so on, are an easier sell.

At a deeper level, I think it’s also unnerving to contemplate the possibility that others are aware of what we’re thinking and feeling.  I think we all find it comforting, at times, to believe that others don’t know our true intentions, and that they’re seeing only what we want them to see.

What we don’t often realize, I think, is that it can also be liberating to admit how attuned we are to each others’ emotions and thoughts.  If you know my true intentions and how I’m really feeling, there’s no need for me to try so hard to have you see me a certain way — because it’s not going to work anyway.

In other words, if there’s no point in trying to convince each other we’re charismatic, dominant, secure, or whatever else, we can all just relax and let go of the strategies we rely on to deceive each other, and maybe even start having little fun in our relating.  I know this sounds wonderful to me — I felt some tension drain out of my shoulders as I wrote it.  :)

So, I invite you to consider, if just for a moment, the possibility that people in your life can “read your mind,” and notice whether that offers you a new sense of freedom.

The Joy of Listening, Part 5: There Are No Rules, Only Requests

Earlier in this series, I wrote about how we can stay attentive and compassionate even when we’re listening to an angry or critical person.  In this piece, I’ll offer another perspective that’s useful to keep in mind in emotionally charged interactions.  The perspective is this:  there are no rules for what you “must” or “should” do.  There are only the wants and needs of human beings.

This perspective is helpful in the context of taking criticism because, when people are critical, they usually phrase what they say in terms of what we “should have done,” what we “were supposed to do,” and what we “did wrong.”  Some examples most of us have heard at various times in our lives include:

* You should have asked me before you did that.

* You weren’t supposed to do that.

* You really screwed this up.

* No, you will do what I say right now.

This kind of language implies that there was a clear rule for what you should have done, and you broke that rule.  And I don’t just mean a “rule” made by your parents, your boss, the President, or any other person.  I mean an objective, self-evident law of the universe, like “A equals A” or “objects in motion tend to stay in motion.”

Of course, this isn’t true.  For example, suppose your boss barks “you were supposed to BCC me on that e-mail, not CC me.”  You obviously didn’t break any laws of nature by CC’ing your boss.  As far as I know, God didn’t hand down any commandments governing how to copy people on e-mails.  But most of us in this kind of situation still react as if we did violate some universal moral principle.  Our bodies tighten up, we feel angry or ashamed, and we start apologizing or defending ourselves.

Translating Criticism into Nonviolent Language

Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which I mentioned earlier, is all about moving beyond this style of communicating.  In giving feedback to others “nonviolently,” we speak in terms of what we feel or want, not what “the rules” are or what others “should” do.

To go back to my earlier example, for instance, a boss giving nonviolent criticism might say something like “I wanted you to BCC me on that e-mail.”  This way, he makes clear that he’s upset because you didn’t do what he wanted—not because you violated some eternal divine law.

Unfortunately, most people we interact with aren’t familiar with nonviolent communication, and would probably have a hard time seeing the value of using it.  However, understanding this style of communication can still help us to hear criticism without freaking out or closing down.  This is because, when someone offers negative feedback, NVC helps us remember that, no matter how they phrase their accusations, what we’re really hearing is their unmet need or want.

In other words, whenever someone criticizes us, it’s helpful to ask ourselves “what need or want are they expressing with what they’re saying?”  And when we figure out the answer to that question, we can mentally translate what the other person is saying into “nonviolent” language.  I’ll illustrate how we can do this with the typical forms of criticism I listed above:

* “You should have asked me before you did that”  becomes “I wish you had asked me before you did that.”

* “You weren’t supposed to do that” becomes “I didn’t want you to do that.”

* “Why can’t you do anything right?” becomes ”I want you to do what I ask.”

* “No, you will do what I say right now” becomes “I want you to do what I ask now.”

When you try this out in the real world, I think you’ll notice how spotting the need or want beneath what the other person is saying has the interaction feel less provocative and threatening.

What’s more, if you happen to be in the habit of replaying in your head criticism you received in the past, this can be a deeply healing technique for you.  Take the demeaning words the other person used, and locate the unmet need they were really expressing.  When you understand that the words you were fretting over were nothing more than someone else’s statement of what they wanted or how they felt, the words may not seem to cut so deeply anymore.

Of course, this approach isn’t guaranteed to make all our interactions calm and pleasant.  Many of us still feel anxious or defensive when another person gets angry, no matter how they express their anger to us.  However, when we remind ourselves we’re simply dealing with an angry person expressing their unmet needs, and we haven’t broken any universal laws, we can go a long way toward helping ourselves stay composed and receptive.

The Joy of Listening, Part 1: Overcoming The Barriers
The Joy of Listening, Part 2: Empathic Reflection
The Joy of Listening, Part 3: Staying Empathic
The Joy of Listening, Part 4: Setting Boundaries

The Joy of Listening, Part 4: Setting Boundaries

My last post in this series was about staying receptive and curious when we’re listening, even in the face of a “difficult conversation” or a lot of emotional intensity.  On the same issue, a few commenters on Part One said they sometimes find themselves feeling exploited and resentful when they’re listening to someone.

I suspect you, like these commenters, have had the experience of someone “talking your ear off”—babbling on and on with seemingly no consideration for your time and energy.  When you’re experiencing a conversation this way, of course, it’s hard to find much joy in listening.

Recognize That You Have A Choice

One thing it’s hard to keep in mind when we’re feeling taken advantage of like this is that “it takes two to tango.”  To create a conversation where somebody is talking your ear off, the other person needs to talk a lot, but you must also choose to listen.  In fact, you have the freedom to stop listening and end the conversation at any time, and every second you keep listening you’re choosing not to exercise that freedom.

What often stops us from recognizing this is that we believe, on some level, that we have a moral obligation to keep listening to the other person.  After all, if we stopped listening—no matter how polite we were in ending the conversation—that might hurt the other person’s feelings.  And because it’s our job to make sure no one’s feelings ever get hurt, that option isn’t available.

Naturally, when we see ourselves as obligated to listen, rather than choosing to listen, we feel resentful and victimized.  Because we think it’s “wrong” to say what we want, we hold the other person responsible for predicting what we want.  We expect them to know, in other words, how long we’re willing to tolerate their chatter.  We start having angry thoughts like:  “Don’t they know I don’t have time for this?”  “Can’t they see I’m bored with what they’re saying?”

So, I think a simple shift in our perspective can help.  When you’re having a conversation and the other person is talking your ear off, see if you can keep in mind that, in every moment you listen to this person, you are choosing to do so.  Recognize also that making listening to people a “moral obligation” only brings anger and frustration into your relationships, and makes it impossible for listening to be fun—both for you and the person doing the talking.

Expressing Your Choice

It’s all very well to acknowledge that you’re choosing to keep listening to the other person from moment to moment, but what if you want to stop listening?  How do you let them know, in a respectful way, that you don’t want to listen to them anymore?

The best you can do, I think, is to simply tell the other person you have something else you want to do, in a way that doesn’t blame them for how you’re feeling.  By “blaming them,” I mean doing what I talked about earlier—making them responsible, in your mind, for predicting your wants and needs, and getting upset with them because they “should have known” you wanted them to stop talking (or at least to stop talking about the new blender they bought).

Some of us find it hard to imagine this is even possible.  We assume that, to tell someone we want to finish the conversation or move on to another topic, we have to say something like “you’re boring me” or “go yammer at someone else”—in other words, “I don’t want to listen anymore, and it’s your fault.”  Perhaps we’re accustomed to others talking to us this way, and we haven’t been exposed to other possibilities.

Let me give you an example of a “non-blaming” approach.  I’ve had a few moments recently where a client has wanted to keep our session going past the end of the hour, and I’ve simply told them “I hear what you’re saying, and I’m going to end the session now.”  I’ve straightforwardly told the client what I’m going to do, without suggesting they “should have known” we couldn’t go over time, or otherwise blaming them for wanting to extend our session.

And perhaps, if you’re concerned that they’re going to feel hurt, you can even let them know about that concern.  You might say, for example, “I’m worried that you’ll feel neglected when I finish this conversation, and I’m going to go do something else now.”  Many of us hold feelings like this back in the strange hope that, if the other person doesn’t know we’re worried about hurting them, they won’t feel hurt.  When you fully lay what you’re wanting and feeling on the table, this can bring a refreshing realness and vulnerability to the conversation.

Now, the reason I say this is “the best you can do” is that, as much as many of us would like to avoid having someone feel hurt, it’s simply impossible to do that 100% of the time.  We can’t hope to control all the factors that determine how someone else feels, which might include their childhood experiences, how their intimate relationships are going, their brain chemistry, and so on.  What we can do is take responsibility for our own feelings and choices, and when we do that we can actually make listening an enjoyable experience again.

If you enjoyed this post, check out the rest of the series:

The Joy of Listening, Part 1: Overcoming The Barriers
The Joy of Listening, Part 2: Empathic Reflection
The Joy of Listening, Part 3: Staying Empathic
The Joy of Listening, Part 5: There Are No Rules, Only Requests

The Joy of Listening, Part 3: Staying Empathic

My last post was about empathic reflection—the practice of reflecting back the desires and emotions of the person you’re listening to.  While this may sound simple, it’s trickier than it sounds.  When an interaction starts to feel emotionally intense, it’s easy to fall back into old, reactive patterns of thinking and behaving.  If someone is angry and we’re feeling attacked, for instance, it can be hard to avoid the temptation to stop listening and start defending ourselves.  Similarly, if the other person is sad or worried, it can be difficult to stop consoling them and actually listen to what they’re telling us.

In this post, I’ll talk about some ways we can stay centered, and continue caring about the other person, even when faced with a lot of emotional charge.

Recognize That It’s All Just Sensation. If the emotional intensity of the conversation is starting to feel overwhelming, pause for a moment, take a breath, and notice what you’re experiencing in your body.  Is some part of your body—maybe your shoulders, neck, pelvis or somewhere else—feeling tight?  Is some place—perhaps your face or hands—getting uncomfortably warm?

Usually we mentally label these sensations, calling them “anger,” “joy,” “fear,” and so on.  What’s more, we come up with a mental story about why they’re happening—for example, “what she said made me angry,” or “he hurt me when he looked away from me.”  Still further, we tell ourselves we’ve “got to do something” about what we’re feeling to “make things right”—“I’ve got to hurt him back,” “I need to make her feel better,” “I must prove my point,” and so forth.

What I invite you to do is experiment with letting go of these labels and stories, and purely focusing on the physical sensations arising in you.  What I think you’ll find is that, without all the mental stories about what other people are doing and how you need to respond, those sensations no longer seem so threatening or intense.  It’s just a tension in your shoulders, a heat in your forehead, or something else that, in all likelihood, will quickly pass, leaving you intact and unharmed.  In other words, it probably won’t kill you.

For some people, it seems difficult to slow down and notice the sensations they’re feeling, because emotionally charged interactions feel really fast-paced.  Maybe, for example, the other person is demanding to know why you did this or that, and you feel an intense pressure to answer them as quickly as possible.

In these moments, it’s useful to remember that you, as one of the parties to the conversation, actually have some control over its pace.  You don’t have some kind of “moral obligation” to talk as quickly as the other person, have every bit of information they demand at your fingertips, or otherwise follow their lead.  (In fact, as I wrote in an earlier piece, sometimes it’s more enjoyable and meaningful to stay silent.)  It takes practice to keep this in mind, but when you really internalize this, relating with people can become less stressful.

Ask Yourself What You’re Really Defending Against. As I said, it can be tough not to slip into our old habits of defending ourselves when we feel attacked.  And, what we usually don’t stop and wonder is what we’re really trying to defend ourselves against in those moments.  In other words, if someone is criticizing you and you’re feeling defensive, try asking yourself:  what am I trying to prevent from happening right now?  What goal am I really trying to achieve?

If you’re able to slow down and observe what you’re thinking and feeling in moments like these, you may notice an inner voice making comments like:

“If I hurt the other person, I won’t feel as hurt.”

“I need their approval, love or respect to survive.”

“This conversation is a fight or a competition that I need to win.”

“If I don’t convince them I’m right, I’ll be punished or even killed.”

Once you recognize what your inner voice is saying and why it feels so important to defend yourself, ask yourself if what that voice says is really true.  What I suspect you’ll notice is how paranoid, childlike and disconnected from reality that voice often sounds.  Usually, the assumptions it makes simply aren’t true—you don’t need the other person’s approval to live, and hurting them isn’t really likely to make you feel better.

When you have this realization, you may begin taking your urge to stop listening and counterattack a bit less seriously, and feeling like you can actually choose how to respond in a conflict situation rather than automatically reacting.

At a deeper level, I suspect that the voice that urges us to defend ourselves is a relic of very early moments in our lives, when the world looked unfamiliar, scary and confusing.  While I think it’s helpful to treat this frightened, young part with compassion, we don’t have to leave it in charge of how we relate to people.

Connect With Your Curiosity. One thing that tends to happen in emotionally charged interactions is that we lose our curiosity about what’s going on for the other person.  If they’re feeling frustrated, despondent or something else and blaming us for it, we stop trying to understand why they’re feeling and acting the way they are, and instinctively start withdrawing, attacking, tuning them out, or whatever else we normally do to protect ourselves.

The next time you find this happening for you, see if you can consciously choose to stay curious about what’s having the other person be this way.  What’s going on at a deeper level that’s having them blame, belittle, ignore, or do whatever they’re doing in this moment?  What are they really concerned about or afraid of?  What ideas might they have about the world and their place in it that would cause them to be like this?

What I think you’ll find if you can consciously choose to stay curious about the other person is that, even if there’s a lot of anger, sadness, fear or something else coming up in the conversation, the interaction can actually stay interesting and fulfilling to be in.  Seeking to understand someone else and where they’re coming from, even when they’re expressing intense emotion, can actually be an adventure.

As Juliet from LifeMadeGreat recently observed, our desire as human beings to be understood is at least as important as our desire for money, relationships, “six-pack abs” and all the other typical “personal development” goals.  Just having a genuine interest in understanding what’s going on for another person, in my experience, can defuse conflicts and bring a peace and depth to our conversations.

If you enjoyed this post, check out the rest of the series:

The Joy of Listening, Part 1: Overcoming The Barriers
The Joy of Listening, Part 2: Empathic Reflection
The Joy of Listening, Part 4: Setting Boundaries
The Joy of Listening, Part 5: There Are No Rules, Only Requests