Last time, we looked at all the ways in which modern society conspires against us to reduce the amount and quality of our family time. This time I'm going to start looking at ways to begin building visible empathy.
You might find that choice of words a little odd... after all, what is "visible empathy"?
It's clear that aspies feel empathy for others - I don't really feel the need to reiterate that. The problems aren't with the ability to feel. The real problems facing people on the spectrum tend to be related to interpretation and demonstration.
Or in plain English;
- How to tell what someone is feeling (indeed how to notice that something is amiss) when they're only using non-verbal language.
- How to respond in such a manner that your response is understood as an empathetic response rather than a knee-jerk reaction or a flippant remark.
Before we begin looking at it from an aspergers/autistic point of view though, we need to first start to define what make empathy work.
Steps to Empathy
I'm sure that there are lots of different articles around the web and in journals and text books, which talk about steps to empathy. I've read none of them. I'm going in "cold" but from the heart and I've come up with a four-step process of my own.
That's not to suggest that my process is in any way better than whatever else is out there but simply that it's mine. It's personal to me and it therefore completely matches the kind of advice I'm going to give in this article.
You'll note, as you read the details, that I've automatically assigned gender roles and assumed a heterosexual relationship. I apologize if this makes what I've written less approachable. I've done this because of a number of factors;
- I'm more familiar with Male Aspie + Female Neurotypical conversations
- Females tend to crave empathy more often than males (in my experience)
- There seems to be far more male aspies than females, though I believe that many more females remain undiagnosed than males.
- I'm quite often asked to answer questions which assume this perspective
If you have any different experiences or perspectives, please leave comments. I'm well aware of how "sheltered" my existence has been and I'm always eager to learn new perspectives.
So without further ado, my four step process for "Empathy for Aspies" is;
Receive - Explore - Feel - Respond
I thought about making it into some cool sort of acronym but decided that clarity was much more important that wordplay.
This simply means to receive the signals. Usually this means listening but at the same time, it includes making a note of body language, tone, gestures etc. I know that this is very difficult for aspies but the problem isn't that we can't receive non-verbal signals. It's that we have great difficulty interpreting them - particularly when we're not watching for them and particularly during real-time animated (fast and two-sided) conversation.
The reception of non-verbal language should be much easier in an empathetic situation because these sorts of conversations tend to be much more one-sided with the person needing empathy pouring her heart out to the person who is expected to give empathy.
Now, it's important to note that empathy conversations just "happen". The person with issues doesn't book a time with you to start an empathy conversation. They don't give you any warning, they just start pouring it all out.
Those first few minutes are one of the most important parts of receiving an empathy-conversation. If you fail to recognise that an empathy conversation has started, then you'll respond inappropriately and you'll quickly find yourself branded as "incapable of empathy".
In my experience, empathy-conversations usually occur in quiet, generally one-to-one moments. Here's some of the ways they start;
- The distant look
I'm sitting on the lounge and I look up to notice a "distant" look on my wife's face. We've been married long enough that I now recognise at least a smattering of facial expressions. I ask her "are you ok" and then she starts to tell me about her day. As I listen, I discover that it's been a difficult day for her.
Of course, half the time, my "are you ok?" question falls flat. Sometimes it's because I've done something, often unknowingly, to upset her. Sometimes it's because she already told me and I didn't realise that it was such a big deal. Sometimes, it's simply because her face has fallen into that "look"and she hasn't realised - or because I've misinterpreted. Still, I try, and sometimes I succeed.
I used to ask my wife "what's wrong" instead of "are you ok". I discovered that asking someone "what's wrong" out of the blue is insulting and perhaps insensitive. After all, it doesn't necessary mean that anything is wrong. She may just not be feeling happy. Asking if she is ok is better because rather than the accusatory tone that "what's wrong?" takes, "are you ok?" immediately communicates concern, sensitivity and care.
- The visitor
As you improve with empathy, you find that people will want to talk with you. Visitors are people who deliberately seek you out because they need a bit of empathy. It's not uncommon for me to have people come into my office with a minor computing issue only to start talking about different things. It may be problems with other work colleagues or bosses or it may be things on a more personal note.
I've learned to keep reasonably superficial about non-work empathy. It's okay to empathise with someone over a difficult co-worker, less safe to empathise about children. It's extremely dangerous to empathise with strangers over concerns with their marital partners.
I'm not quite sure that I achieved what I set out to do last time but in any case, I'll be continuing on my four-step process and looking at the areas of Exploring and Feeling Empathy. I'll probably need to save the actual "demonstration" (Respond) section until last.