Many years ago, when I was naïve and not exactly socially intelligent, I left an indelible mark on a relationship with one sentence. It began when a colleague shared with me that she had cancer. My response was something like this: “Well, you know it is all meant to be. There is something you are meant to learn from it.” Yes, I can hear you cringing from here. I don’t blame you. Fortunately I have learned since then—a lot—and am now teaching what I have learned.
Here’s where I missed the mark.
Resting in the receptive
One of the core principles that I teach, as many of you now know, is the Spirit of Yes And. The “Yes” of Yes And is the receptive—it is where you acknowledge, appreciate, validate, include, and respect another person’s point of view / situation / feeling. Over the years of teaching and practicing it, I have learned how powerful and beautiful it is simply to receive someone in full; to allow them to be in their world without any need to fix or save them, and of course, to refrain from judgment. I am with them, and without needing to agree.
While the “Yes” of Yes And is the receptive, with “And” you send out information from your world to theirs. Here you may offer ideas, share stories, and make requests. It is more about you—your agendas— and less about them.
My mistake with my colleague (or my learning opportunity if you want to call it that) is that I abruptly went to the “And” before the “Yes”—I was quick to send out a point of view, to “enlighten”. More to the point, I offered an “And” that wasn’t useful in any way because it did not serve to support her present-moment experience of grief. It insensitively bypassed the heart-breaking nature of her immediacy. Rightfully, she was not open to it. Sure, we can all agree that we learn a lot when faced with difficult times, more than when things are going smoothly; but there is no need to highlight the “take away” for someone in a situation like this, especially without their permission, and if you are not close to the person, which I was not.
Needing to be significant
Part of my impulse to “save” others came from an upbringing where I witnessed lots of “high-level analysis” in the form of big words, grandiose visions and sparkly platitudes—a need to be bold, smart and sound significant. Some of this conditioning turned out to be useful to me. From it I learned to have a level of confidence in where I was going and what I was talking about—to be strong in my convictions and how I express myself, all quite useful when presenting to a room of 1000 people (which I now do). I am grateful for this. But it was only useful because through many years of self-reflection I trimmed away the insensitivity, arrogance and righteousness that formed the rough edges around my words and attitude. What I discovered was the soft, receptive sensitivity of empathy, and how powerful a gift it is. And how people are hungering for it in a world full of fixers, advisors and enlighteners.
Meeting others where they are
Empathy is simply the art of exploring, enhancing and allowing people to be where they are. This includes being with their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual worlds, and doing so without fixing, saving, judging, or running away. You meet them where they are, and allow their experience to be as it needs to be right now.
A short while ago, I was with a friend who was feeling sad and confused, uncertain about the direction of her life. I spent a great deal of time listening and validating her world, letting her know that I could hear her thoughts and feelings, and making them okay. I had no intent to pull her out of her experience, to somehow “make it better”; to pull her towards me, towards what I thought she “could” or “should” be experiencing or considering. That is highly disrespectful of someone’s experience. But this is what we do.
What you resist within, you resist without
A core reason we want to fix and pull someone out of their experience is because we, unconsciously, have a hard time being with their feelings, whether they are sadness, fear, anger, confusion etc. And we have this difficulty because we struggle to be with these feelings in ourselves. What you cannot be with within, you will avoid or seek to remove in others. Unwittingly, we rescue others from the feelings we rescued ourselves from many years ago when it was not safe to feel, feelings we continue to avoid today.
Without a healthy relationship with our emotional body, we cannot create room / hold space for the wild, uncertain depths of feeling in another. It can frighten us, and so we fix, avoid, judge, or save—all forms of control. We do anything but simply allow and be with, and make that enough.
As I sat there with my sad and confused friend, I gently told her, “I have no intention of pulling you out of your experience. Stay here as long as you need to. Be where you are in full.” It was easy for me to have no agenda for her because her feelings posed no threat to my inner world. Gradually, she softened into her feelings even more, began to cry, and after a short while she opened to me; she came out of her little cocoon, her resting period, and soon she leaned into me energetically and with words—she was open to my “And’s”, to any thoughts or ideas I had on her situation. I could feel it. We could feel it. The tides had risen. She no longer needed me to reside solely in the “Yes” to her inward flow.
People open to you as you open to them
If you want someone to meet you in your world, first meet them in theirs. If you want someone to open to and respect your point of view, first give room for their own. There are many books on how to persuade or get people to opt in to your worldview. Well, here is a simple way that I much prefer—be with theirs! This is especially important when you are with people who are stuck in black and white thinking or ridged points of view. Offer them empathy. Make them right in their world, because in truth, they think they are right. Give ample room to walk with them in their reality, validating it, again without the need to agree. Essentially, you are saying to them, “I don’t agree with you, and I’m still with you.” The stronger the resistance on their end, the longer you may need to stay in empathy, walking beside them, and the wider you may need to open your heart to their world.
There is a relationship between black and white thinking, or rigid perspectives, and the degree of trauma we have in our body. For many of us, including myself, we have coped with the difficulties of our past by locking up our emotional body and tightening our mindsets. It is how we created safety for ourselves. Our brain became hard-wired to defend and attack; it faithfully held, and continues to hold, the doorknob of our hearts and minds with a firm grip, keeping the entry closed from the outside world. It is these people that need your empathy most. Offer it to them, not to get them to come to you, but because they, often without knowing it, are hungering to be heard. Just like my friend, they will come to you, open to your “And’s” naturally, if you first patiently and tenderly go to them; not by force, not by pulling, but simply by being with them in their world. If they don’t, it means that despite your loving efforts, they are still too afraid to drop their point of view, to open, and may need extra support.
With empathy we invite people to make a new choice
In offering people empathy, you honour their choice to be who or how they are. Even if it is an unconscious reactive choice rooted in their troubled history and agitated nervous system, you let them keep their reality as they choose it to be. By doing so, you create the safe space for their clenching hands to soften, open and for a new choice to arise.
Humans want to feel at choice. We want to feel powerful, not powerless. And when we feel like we don’t have a choice, when it is the only choice we know how to make, or we feel others imposing their choices onto us, we do whatever we can to to defend ourselves, often unconsciously. This is how we define and express our power—by gripping our desires, perspectives or ideas more firmly. Tell a teenager that he shouldn’t do drugs and there is a good chance he will smoke pot just to prove a point—to defend his right to freedom. But honour his capacity to be resourceful, his right to be curious and ability to assess options—in other words, be empathetic with his natural teenage inquiring mind—and you may find that he considers new pathways; he chooses not from reactive pride, but from his heart.
Clearly, if I could do it all over again, I would have said to my friend with cancer, and with a kind, soft tone, “Tammy, I am so sorry to hear that.” And perhaps, after a while, I might have gone to the “And” and said, “Please let me know if you need anything.” Or, “What can I do to help?”
The key with the “And” is to offer it after you have sat in the receptive “Yes” for a while. Be empathetic, pause, and allow space for them to respond. Be willing to patiently allow them to share as much as they need to feel heard, perhaps to ventilate, perhaps to cry. You make where they are perfectly normal, natural, human. We weren’t supported to be human when young. We eventually had to be superhuman to cope with not feeling safe to be our natural feeling-self.
It’s not therapy. It’s being human.
At this point in my communication trainings, people often say to me, “But Vince, you are now talking about therapy, about acting like a therapist to co-workers, friends and family members!” We think it is therapy because we don’t know how to be human, and to be in very human relationships. So much so that we call ourselves “professionals” thinking we can somehow function productively and happily at work without acknowledging the pervasive yet shadowed personal in ourselves, and others. We think we can have fulfilling relationships and marriages without acknowledging our history, including our pain. This is an old illusion we have been living that does not work. It is why there is so much dysfunction in workplaces and our personal relationships. What’s real cannot be denied. It will erupt in insidious and overt ways.
For many, if not most, feeling the emotional body has been relegated to a pathological experience. This collective concept is borne out of a society that judges feelings as bad, wrong, unhealthy or weak. Crying is only for certain situations—if something “bad” is happening, but not for every day living. We have compartmentalized feelings for certain “appropriate” situations, such as funerals, if that, and perhaps only for women. And so we have narrowly compartmentalized the very human experience of feeling to certain times, situations and genders, and relegated it to a room with a soft couch and surveying professional who is there to “fix” us.
We have forgotten that feeling is natural and necessary. It promotes good health and open-hearted living. It is a sign that you are fully alive, connected to the beauty, and yes, darkness of our world. Sickness comes when we resist what is meant to flow in our body. Well-being is experienced when we express with the fluidity of a child.
1. Be aware of when you feel the need to fix/judge/avoid what another is experiencing. Specifically, temper any urges to enlighten through advice, or to tell stories about your own related experiences.
2. Intend to connect. Before speaking, have the intention to connect—to open to and explore their world with genuine interest and care. Connection is the heart of communication. Without it, no one is truly heard or met.
3. Offer empathy. If you need examples of statements, you will find many online. But here are a few that may help for now:
- I hear how difficult this is for you.
- I get how much you need this done.
- That sounds like a tricky spot you are in.
- It sounds like this is important to you.
4. Remember to pause after your empathetic statement to offer room for them to share more. Pausing also acts like a stop sign to keep you from tripping over into the “And”.
5. Reflect on where you have a strong urge to fix/judge/avoid. The stronger the impulse, the greater the opportunity for growth. See them as your mirror showing you the shadows that patiently await your empathy.
We can only be empathetic to others to the degree that we give empathy to ourselves. That is the essence of this practice. Without having empathy given to us when young, the urgency is now there for us to learn to give it to ourselves. So find that spot in your mirror that you want to fix, turn it around, and ask yourself, “Where do I avoid that—my sadness/anger/fear?” etc. Most importantly, feel it. Enter the somatic realm—the body—and sink into these old feelings that you have so adeptly danced around for many years. End the dance with yourself, and you will no longer unwittingly pull others into it.
Empathy is Love
Empathy is love. You love others as you love yourself. You hold space for that which longs to move and grow inside. You allow yourself and others to be beautifully afraid, wonderfully angry, and deliciously sad. You allow what wants to be exquisitely ripe and alive within the human experience. Love is your ongoing practice, and your gift to yourself, others and the world.
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Check out Vince’s book: Wild Empty Spaces ~ Poems for the Opening Heart