Empathy, and communication

I wrote the following in a comment to a friend’s journal, but I wanted to save it here too…

I had a conversation with someone recently where we talked about empathy, and how to develop and strengthen it. Something that has always helped me: I take my own “emotional temperature” very often, at least once a day, and in times of stress, sometimes a dozen times a day. Taking an accurate reading of my own emotional state helps me to zero in on other influences — if I am suddenly upset about something, I can usually tell what it is.

Receiving strong feelings from others has a similar effect on my own emotional state. If I am doing just fine one moment, and twenty minutes later I am feeling angry or sad, it’s a strong possibility that someone just walked into the room and beamed Angry or Sad at me for several minutes.

Regardless of whether the cause is my own experiences and reactions, or a reflection of something I picked up from someone else, it helps a great deal if I can become intellectually aware of it, so I’m acting/reacting on an intellectual level and not just an emotional one. Emotions do deserve a reaction, but it’s not always the one that your emotions tell you that you want. If you’re angry at someone, the reaction your emotions tell you would be satisfying would be to say something hurtful or kick him in the kneecaps. Once your thinking-brain is also engaged, you may decide a better reaction is to simply tell the person how you are feeling, or go tell someone else you trust.

Similarly, if you pick up on strong emotion from someone else, it’s entirely possible that *her* brain is not clued in — ironically, the folks who broadcast strong feelings well to others often don’t acknowledge the feeling themselves, or are in denial about it, or are blaming it on something else that isn’t the real source of the feeling. Feelings that don’t get acknowledged somehow tend to just grow stronger. If you have ever had someone around you that telegraphed his feelings of anger or sadness really well, so well that people around them would scramble to try and help him or “fix” the issue for him, without him having to talk about his feelings at all, that’s what’s going on — he makes everyone else around him feel his feeling, and someone else deals with it, so he doesn’t have to.

The above rambling about emotions and empathy relates on one level to passing things through a filter before saying them, in the sense that you’re making sure your intellect is engaged and it’s not just your emotional reaction coming across.

However, there’s another layer at work here, and that’s different types of communication. I think good communication is a lot more about good listening than about speaking clearly. Stephen Covey wrote about communication in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: First seek to understand, then to be understood. One important tool in effective listening is to listen to the emotion as well as to the semantics of the language. Be alert to when someone is speaking from a primarily emotional place, and respond by addressing the emotion, which often means ignoring the exact meaning of the words and just acknowledging the feeling behind it. For example, if someone says “You know, I should just quit this job!” they probably don’t mean “I’ve considered all the options and I’ve decided to move on.” They probably mean “I’m so frustrated with this job that I don’t know what to do.” In that case the appropriate response is probably something like “I can tell that you’re frustrated. I wish I could help.”

The point of that is, if you’re aware that someone is speaking on a mostly emotional level, deal directly with the emotion they are expressing, usually by acknowledging it. If you can get them to be mentally aware of the feeling they are broadcasting, you can usually either address it or at least soothe the savage emotion enough to return to talking on an intellectual level. Folks who are good communicators often do this without even thinking about what they’re doing — they can tell when someone has said something totally unfiltered, and they apply the right filter on the receiving end. It may take quite some time to deal with the emotional part of the message, but it has to be processed before you can engage the intellectual part of the conversation again.

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