Sunday, March 28, 2010

Getting Empathy (Back) into Your Relationship - Part 2

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;
  1. How to tell what someone is feeling (indeed how to notice that something is amiss) when they're only using non-verbal language.

  2. 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.

There's probably a dozen more ways in which empathy conversations begin but as usual, I've caught myself trying to categorise everything.

Next Time
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.


M said...

i love that cartoon image. the grand finale of doctor who didn't air here in the states and i only just now gained access to a dvd of the two-part episode. david tennant. as much as i loved tom baker, tennant was infinitely perfect. so...the new guy, he seems interesting. hard to move past tennant, but i'm willing to keep an open mind.

sorry for the semi off topic rambling. who. heaven for the otherwise.

Shanti Perez said...

I know I miss opportunities due to my AS and people don't give me a chance. I can tell them, up front, in plain English what I'm like and they will tell me I don't seem like the way I describe myself. Then, later, when they see that I was right, they act as if they are criticizing me for the way I already told them I am. It causes me a great deal of sadness. In the end I do end up feeling less-than. I am told that I dictate too much and don't reciprocate. I don't mean to be this way. It hurts me very much.

Chynna said...

Thank you for this post, Gavin. I'm getting my partner, Steve to read it. =)

Can't wait for your FTF article! =)


The Rambling Taoist said...

I think this series of posts is providing a great service and will help many. Unfortunately, I don't think it will help me because I do appear to be an Aspie who DOES lack empathy. I can sympathize with others out the yin yang, but try as I might, I can't seem to conjure up any empathy at all. It simply doesn't seem to be part of my make-up.

Lee said...

I tend to agree with Rambling, I can attempt to listen, make
a good effort to hear someone out, but the empathy just isn't there. Gavin, your wife is fortunate you are able to have this capacity. I just tend to provide solutions, not much of a shoulder to cry on.

JJ said...

in response to the rambling taoist, i'd like to point out that first of all there are a lot of people out there in the nt world who appear to lack empathy, i agree with gavin that it's not necessarily an aspie trait. So it could be a character trait but it could also, as gavin mentioned in the first part of this post, just be something that we learn by watching other people (parents/other role models) empathise, and maybe you just weren't exposed to that. this would mean that with practice, anyone can learn it. second, there seems to be alot of confusion as to what empathy actually is. i just looked it up on wikipedia and it seems to me that every psychologist has developed his/her definition. maybe you DO have empathy by some definition and maybe it would be helpful, gavin, to not resist the temptation to categorize this time and define what YOU mean by empathy? :)

another thing i stumbled over: you say that difficulties aren't due to not being able to receive non-verbal signals but to interpret them. i'm not sure i agree with you on this. in my (hypersensitive) experience, life is such a sensory explosion most of the time that i need to create tunnel vision to save myself from chronic overload. this means that i only notice what is right in front of me, metaphorically or literally shouting at me in some form or other. so i need to be in a quiet environment and NOT drained from a day's sensory overload to have the energy to watch out for non-verbal signals. doing this all the time is just not an option anymore. i did so for quite a while in a relationship with an nt man who craved for empathy nonstop and basically had to break up with him because i burned out. these days, i will rarely initiate an empathy conversation because i just don't see the signals, but am very willing to take part in one if invited in a clear way and can and will readily empathise. i may be wrong here, but i wondered if this sensory aspect is less of an issue for you because you've "only" 4 senses to deal with. my maths brain tells me that's 20% less sensory input data to process. could that make room for more non-verbal data processing?

apart from this, interesting post, love the cartoon image and definitely looking forward to the next parts.

Anonymous said...

Concerning your points on the male/female ratio (need for empathy, number of men who have AS, etc.) I highly recommend that you read books on biology. And the two that explains these things the best (and read them in that order):
1. Brain Sex-The Real Difference Between Men and Women, by Moir and Jessel. This book explains why boys are more vulnerable to mom's situation during pregnancy and why more boys become gay, criminal, etc.
2. The Woman Racket, by Steve Moxon. A deep down investigation in the sexes, and mainly men's biology, and why the greates geniuses, and the worst criminals are men. A fantastic contribution to clear the misunderstandings between the sexes in most of the world.

Anonymous said...

You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I discover this topic to be really something which I think I would in no way realize. It seems too complicated and really broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

Miguel Palacio said...

This topic is indeed to complex and complicated for most of us to hack. But, we can try to chip away at it little by little, until we end up with a fine sculpture.