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?".
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.
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.