Friday, April 2, 2010

Getting Empathy (Back) into Your Relationship: Part 3

Last time I started on a four step process to empathy. The steps were;
  1. Receive
  2. Explore
  3. Feel
  4. Respond
In my last post, I discussed receiving communications. I was actually quite amazed at how many people responded by telling me that they couldn't feel any empathy and how they couldn't process the data. It's worthwhile covering this a little before I move on.

Wrapping up Receiving
In my first post of this series, I talked about modern society and the way in which time has been taken away from us. It's clear that unless you can find a clear block of time, you'll never be able to feel empathy properly. It's no good being a listener when you're really thinking about other things.

If your mind is preoccupied with making lists or thinking about tasks that you need to be doing, you'll never have time to process the signals which come from an empathy discussion. You need a clear head and a clear timetable. You need to simply "give yourself to the speaker" and be a listener only. Think only on what they're saying and try to take in as much body language as you can.

Since you're not really engaged in a two-way conversation, you don't need to worry about the speed of conversation. You should be able to process things at more or less your own speed. It's clear that aspies do tend to take a lot of non-verbal information onboard during conversations but that we don't have time to process it under normal conversational rules. To do so would result in massive pauses.

Don't worry about not being able to process all of the body-language signals. There will be quiet times during the discussion when you can reflect on the signals you've seen.

Remember; Just listening isn't empathy. It is only step one of the process.

Exploring the Feelings and Issues
I had a lot of trouble deciding what to call the second step on the road to empathy. I finally decided on "explore" because essentially, you're exploring the issues and the person's feelings to try to "discover" the truth of the matter. Note; this isn't necessarily the real truth but the truth as it appears to the person doing the speaking. It's the truth of their feelings.

You may be surprised to know that in an empathy discussion, you're not being asked to solve the problem. In fact, quite the opposite. You're being asked to, firstly, show a little sympathy and secondly, to actually feel the pain (or other emotion).

In fact, solving a problem in an empathy-discussion is exactly the WRONG thing to do. Resist the temptation and just don't do it - even if you think you know the solution.

The exploring phase consists of asking questions, not so much about the problem but about the person's feelings. You should be asking (gently), "how did you feel about that?" and "what happened next?". You'll want to clarify on detail a little but keep in mind that the discussion is less about the problems and more about the feelings.

Of course, there are plenty of questions that you shouldn't ask;
  • Why didn't you just do .....?
    Many of the worst wrong questions start with this. It's bad enough that statement is very patronizing but it also sends clear signals to the person that you think they did the wrong thing. If they're having doubts of their own, it's going to make them even more depressed or angry.
You'll also probably want to mix a few statements into your responses to highlight points where you agree with the other person's viewpoint, such as; "oh, that's outrageous..." or "yes, he/she is a b...." or "oh, you poor thing, you've been through so much".

One thing to remember though, you're not going to agree with the speaker 100%. Sometimes people say and do crazy things based on their own interpretation. If their interpretation differs from yours, then so will their reaction. If you want the other person to trust you, then you really need to mostly agree with their interpretation - and generally, keep your mouth shut about the bits you don't agree with. There's bound to be a more appropriate time for that conversation.

You might be able to throw in a couple of statements which cast doubt, such as; "Oh, I'm sure they didn't mean it that way..." but too many of these kind of statements destroy any support you're trying to give.

Certainly any statements which make it clear that you disagree;
  • "oh, that is just complete rubbish"
  • "He wouldn't mean that, you're just not reading him right"
  • "you should have thought about that before you walked in"
will work against your empathy.

Feeling the Empathy
Now we get to true empathy. You have to feel it. You have to be able to see it from the other person's perspective.

Contrary to popular science, I personally don't believe that neurotypicals give good empathy most of the time. I think they're just so good, and so fast, with their stock-standard responses that they give the impression that they care.

True empathy needs you to appreciate the feelings, even if you can't actually feel them yourself.

In some cases, this is easy. For example; If someone has lost their partner or child temporarily or permanently, it's often easy to say to yourself; "how would I feel if I lost my partner or child?". "How would I feel if it happened to me?".

Difficult Empathy
It becomes very easy to let feelings wash over you when the examples are extreme and concrete. When you can relate wholeheartedly to them. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, the situations are considerably less real.

For example, I'm often involved supporting people with self-esteem issues. I've personally got plenty of issues but self-esteem is definitely not one of them. I don't care what people think of me - I know in my heart who I am, and nobody is more qualified than I, to make judgements about me.

My ego in this regard makes it very difficult for me to show empathy to people who are having such issues. I'll often tell them that nobody has the right to pass judgement and I'll suggest that they simply "don't listen" but I'm really not convincing. In any case, those words are "offering a solution", not offering empathy. If someone has spent most of their life being bullied and has lost self-esteem as a result, then I'm really at a loss to put myself in their shoes.

In fact, the only way I can do this is to "grow up with them". I have great empathy for characters in movies and in books because I can see the whole picture. This technique works in real life too but it requires imagination.

I need to imagine myself as a child and imagine years and layers of abuse. Sometimes I have to close my eyes and try to imagine the exact scenario that the "victim" is describing. Only then can I really see the world as they see it - and even then, I suspect it's quite inaccurate.

Of course, this isn't always possible during the conversation and sometimes it takes me a few days to actually prepare myself enough to feel the empathy. I'm getting better but I can't always do it.

No matter what you do, there will be situations where you just can't feel any empathy at all. When this happens, you just have to "wing it". You have to try to say the right sort of supportive things and hope that the other person doesn't notice that you're not 100% sincere.

Empathy can only work when you have a decent frame of reference.

Next Time
In this post, we internalized our feelings. We talked about taking the input from an empathy conversation and trying to extract the emotion from it. We then looked at ways to relate to and if possible, feel that emotion.

Although we did discuss some of the sorts of responses which keep the empathy conversation going, it may surprise you to know that most people won't realize that you're actually feeling the emotion.

Many aspies can already reach this point in a an empathy conversation but can't adequately convey their feelings. The result is that the outside world simply assumes that they have no empathy.

In my next post, I'll look at some of the ways that you can respond to let the person who needs empathy know that you're providing it.


The Rambling Taoist said...

As one of the commenters from the previous post who indicated that he lacks the capability of empathy, let me provide an example.

A few weeks back, one of our cats decided to jump up to sit on my wife's lap. Something spooked him halfway through the process and so he misjudged his jump. He came in way too high and lost his bearings.

As cats are prone to do, he extended his claws to help him right himself. Unfortunately, one of these claws snagged on my wife's chest and caused her a great amount of pain. She whooped, cursed a bit and cried.

I was sitting next to her and about all I could muster was a very flat, "I bet that hurts." She screamed at me, "Of course, it hurts!!"

Now, I have been scratched in that way by one of our cats before and so I know what it feels like. I could tell that my wife was in pain. However, I couldn't feel her pain; my brain simply has never worked that way. I've never been able to FEEL other people's feelings.

I can sympathize, but not empathize. I can approach such situations clinically and rationally, but not necessarily emotionally.

This may or may not be one of the traits associated with my Asperger's. I don't know. All I do know is that it's one of the things that differentiates me from most people I know.

Anonymous said...


I am amazed, impressed, and grateful for the energy and time you give to sharing your life's story with others. Your blog has helped me in so many ways to understand the workings of my love interest's inner mind. I realize that you wrote this last series, concerning empathy, to help others with Asperger's to interact 'more appropriately' with their loved ones. I wish people with Asperger's didn't have to 'work' so hard in order not to hurt 'our' feelings.

The differences between us are so curious, and it is uplifting that you wish to explore this in order to help us bridge the gap. I appreciate so many of the qualities I have grown to understand in my Asperger's friend. In fact I now feel certain that some of the qualities which are common in people with Asperger's are what I find to be so attractive and seductive in his being. Of course his inability to empathize in the manner which I am accustomed is not one of those endearing qualities, however reading books and blogs help to reassure me that is normal and not deliberately done to hurt others. I know it's a feature of your intense focus within on whatever you are working on at that moment in time. Therefore it could be said that an NT such as myself could empathize better with an Aspie if they understood this and allowed them the social grace of 'getting away' with their behavior, gesture, or lack thereof. However generally when we NT's need empathizing it registers in a hurtful way for the person we care about to behave as if they do not care about us. Try as much as I do to understand and behave accordingly, I DO find myself feeling hurt over and over again.

I am head over heels in love with this Asperger man, who I don't believe knows anything about Asperger's. We have never discussed it. I wish I could talk to him about what I have learned, but fear that I have to use this knowledge solely to help me to understand what is going on with him and why certain things happen or don't happen with us. I do feel strongly that it would be very useful if this knowledge could come out in the open, because I allow myself to be hurt repeatedly by the very miscommunications and gestures that are labeled 'lack of empathy in Asperger's'. I don't want to injure him in any way, and so allow him to 'get away' with things that hurt me. I continually rationalize that he doesn't mean anything by these comments or behaviors, and needs his time to himself to work and stay focused on his path. I know that this is an unbalanced relationship, which is definitely not as good as it could be. However I cannot stop thinking and hoping that someday we will attempt to communicate and work on these things. I realize that without the concept of him being an 'Aspie' being out in the open, that we are missing many pieces of the puzzle which may enable us to move forward into a more honest realm.

Do you agree that it is necessary to bring this knowledge out in the open?

If you do, could you share your insights on how to do this in a sensitive fashion? I fear that giving any human a 'label' could be interpreted as intrusive. Aspies are very private people and the last thing I want to do is to hurt anyone else's feelings.

Thank you so much for all that you do for others.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to agree with what Rambling Taoist said above. I can sympathize fairly easily, but if I empathize at all, it's more on an intellectual level. If I've been through an identical situation as someone else is going through, I can understand them but not really feel anything.

I haven't seen anyone mention being on the receiving end of empathy. I'm sure people have tried to give me empathy but it doesn't work. It doesn't make me feel better if I'm hurting either emotionally or physically. I find myself wanting a tangible solution to end the pain hence empathy is useless for me.

As a result I tend to want to provide actual solutions to people problems even though I understand that empathy might be just as good for some.

Miguel Palacio said...

Sometimes I think it also hรกs to do with the speed of processing certain emotional inputs.

I remember arriving at a surprise going-away party and it really didn't hit me until about half an hour later. And it really can't be more in your face than a bunch of happy people shouting ๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽˆ*SURPRISE!!*

It just took that long for me to process it.

Sometimes tho it may be a self-regulatory process. If there is too much and sudden input, such as even a jovial ๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽˆ*SURPRISE!!* then it's as though my mind lowers the volume or closes the valve a bit to prevent myself from becoming overwhelmed. It's as though I were pacing the rate of sensory or emotional input to a level that I can process. Similar to how old dial-up modems would auto-train and negotiate the speed at which they would finally connect, depending on clarity, signal strength, frequency response and noise levels. ok, ok, I admit that analogy probably reached a very narrow audience, but yeah. ๐Ÿ˜œ