Recently, my daughter was complaining about the mean girls in my granddaughter’s class. Without giving it much thought, I replied: “Oh, that’s what kids do in the first grade!”
Boy, did I blow it with my off-handed remark—on two counts! I should have known better. First of all, if I’d listened more carefully, I would have remembered the E-word, which my daughter is always reminding me to use. Secondly, I completely minimized her distress.
A few days later we talked about our conversation and she admitted that my response bothered her. I said I need to make myself a bumper sticker:
EMPATHIZE DON’T MINIMIZE
She loved the idea.
All she wanted me to say was “It must be so hard to watch that mean behavior” and affirm what she was feeling, and then commiserate a little. For example, “I remember when you were little and the kids teased you. I felt so helpless, I didn’t know what to do.
Empathize Don’t Minimize has become my new mantra because that’s what the parents of our grandchildren want. And for that matter, that’s what all the people in our lives want. Being the problem-solver that I am, I have to remind myself over and over again that people don’t want advice; they want you to understand how they’re feeling.
My next step was to turn to the Internet for inspiration. And, did I discover a gold mine! TeachEmpathy.com was #6 in the 2.7 million results I got when I googled “learning empathy.” The website is sponsored by the Nonviolent Communication Academy and was created to contribute clarity around the topic of empathy and understand how it can enrich your life.
Here’s how they define empathy:
The capability to share and understand another’s emotions and feelings. It is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes.”
The origin of the word empathy dates back to the 1880s, when German psychologist Theodore Lipps coined the term einfuhlung (literally, “in-feeling”) to describe the emotional appreciation of another’s feelings.
In an essay entitled “Some Thoughts on Empathy,” Columbia University psychiatrist Alberta Szalita stated, “I view empathy as one of the important mechanisms through which we bridge the gap between experience and thought.”
In U.S. President Barack Obama’s own words: “Empathy strikes me as the most important quality that we need in America and around the world.”
I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this subject because I need practice, practice, practice!