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Empathy Without Words

Sometimes communication with words is the last thing that creates connection with someone and the only thing you can do is shift how you hold someone in your heart. This kind of empathy means accessing others' experience through your heart and body. This may seem a little out there, but it is not as hard as you think.

Let's look at a situation one gem reader asked about:

"My husband and I generally get along well but our big trigger issue is finances. Basically he's terrible at it and knows it . . . . So he's obviously very sensitive to money issues and feels like I throw this in his face. I approached him the other day about having a conversation about how to talk about money without us getting emotional. He stonewalled me, was angry, saying we were not going to discuss it, period. . . .what about when someone is this guarded and refuses to engage in a conversation?"

First, you might notice that our gem reader has some judgment for her husband, "he's terrible at it". Before moving to empathy it's helpful to round up your judgments and translate them into observations, feelings, needs, and requests. For example, this judgment translated might sound like this:

"When I think about how much my husband earned last year and how much he has in his savings account now, I feel concerned because of a need for security. I would like to ask him if he shares this need with regard to savings."

Having identified your judgments and the observations, feelings, needs, and requests they are pointing to, you are ready to try empathy. What's most helpful in this is having someone who is willing to do this exercise with you. If you are doing it on your own pen and paper is helpful.

Allow yourself to become the person for whom you would like to experience empathy.  Our reader in the example above would sit down and take the posture of her husband, the facial expressions, hold tension in the body where he holds it, etc. Then either through journaling or having someone ask you, respond to following questions as if you were the person for whom you would like to develop empathy.

1. What has life been like for you (as this person you are embodying)?

a. What was your relationship with your parents like?

b. What were the major events of your life – deaths, births, moves, illness/injury, moves, career changes, job loss?

2. What's important to you in life?

3. What's missing in your life?

4. What brings you joy?

5. What do you want in your relationship with_____________?

It is important to answer these questions in the first person really taking on the identity of the person you would like to have empathy for. As you answer these questions notice the feelings and needs that come up for you as the person you are role playing. Write these down. As you allow this person's experience of life to become your own, a natural sense of compassion will arise.  Over and over again I have found that when I make a shift in my heart regarding someone they spontaneously shift as well.

In the example above, our gem reader recognized that her husband no doubt senses her judgment of him. Most likely having plenty of self-judgment as well, the subject becomes too painful for him to broach. She can't force him to connect with her around how painful this is, but she can choose to connect with him around it in her own heart. In time, he will sense this shift and it may help him find the space and support to face his self-criticism and move to self-acceptance. Only through acceptance of what is can effective lasting positive change occur.

Who in your life are you holding judgment for and would like to open heart to? Take fifteen minutes and try this exercise and with someone else and on your own.

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