May 6, 2024

Empathy is More than Words

Blog that explores the lessons learned from experimenting with different ways of being empathetic.

Empathy is More than Words

The third chapter ofmy book is called ‘To Be Seen by a Stranger’. The title of the
chapter is based on the beautiful display of empathy I received from a stranger, the
EMT who was present in the room when we were ushered in to see William’s bodyf or
the first time. As you can imagine, as parents witnessing our worst nightmare, we were
overtaken with emotion. The EMT, instead of avoiding our emotions, stepped towards us
and as a result made me feel seen and witnessed in a way I never had before.The
experiments I conducted in March honor this experience by exploring how I can be
empathetic in a way that is authentic to me.

March Experiment 1 – Pay attention to my emotions and when they arise, observe
and name them.

Based on the experience I had with the EMT, I have thought a lot about what it means to
be empathic. In my book, I write that, “True empathy is a selfless act...We put our
‘selves’ aside for the sake of another.” What this means is that to be empathetic you
have to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable, you have to be connected to your own
emotions and express them. For me, connecting with my emotions is not something
that comes naturally. As such, for my first experiment of the month I worked to pay
attention to my emotions when they emerged, observed them and took note of what was
going on.

It is amazing what you notice when you pay attention to something. When I was feeling
a particular emotion, the act of sitting back and observing it allowed me to create some
separation from the emotion and I didn’t get as gripped by it. This was particularly the
case for more negative emotions, like anger or frustration, where I have a tendency to
either stew on those for a bit or have an emotional outburst. Another thing I noticed is
that throughout the course of a week, we have a wide range of different emotions based
on whatever is going for us. Paying attention to them adds texture to our lives because
it allows us to connect more fully with the experiences we have. It’s a way of slowing
down and smelling the proverbial roses. Lastly, and perhaps my biggest personal insight,
is that I tend to either be very muted in the expression of my emotions or show big
displays of emotions, typically when I get triggered and go into a more negative space.
As I realized this, it begged the question, how do I expand my emotional range?As
with any question, the best way to explore is through experimentation…

March Experiment 2 – Try different ways of expressing my emotions.

After my week 1 experiment, I realized that the range of how I express my emotions
was quite narrow. I either get triggered and lose it or maintain a relatively calm
demeanor. There is not a lot in between. To be empathetic, you have to be willing to
express your emotions, which given the situation, will need to be done in a variety of
ways to best meet the other person where they are. It requires a broader emotional range than I currently have. As such, the experiment for week 2 is to try different ways of expressing my emotion.

It was an emotional week for me. My father-in-law passed away, and my best friend’s
mother, a woman who I saw nearly every day in middle school when I picked up my friend on the way to school, also passed away. While I felt my emotions deeply, expressing them did not come naturally for me, despite my best efforts. There was still something blocking me.
What I tried to do instead was to simply verbalize what I was feeling. When I felt
something, I would name it out loud. This felt a bit more natural to me and the lesson in
this for me is that the expression of emotion is different for everyone. While it is
important to expand one’s emotional range, it is also important to understand the
boundaries of one’s range. Doing so allows one to be more authentic in their display of

March Experiment 3 –Be empathetic by expressing my emotions in service
to another.

The experiments I had focused on thus far in March were more focused on me and
building my capacity to connect with and express my emotions. In the end though,
empathy requires that you turn your focus to another and use the expression of
emotion as a way of connecting with whatever is going on with them in the moment.
This is how to be in service to someone else when they might need it most. It requires paying
attention to what is going on with others so you can find opportunities for empathy and
connection when they arise. For this week’s experiment that is exactly what I was going
to try to do.

This week’s experiment happened to coincide with my father-in-law’s funeral. I made a
big effort to be there for my wife and her family. I pushed myself to walk towards the
emotion as opposed to my natural tendency to walk away from it. I made the first move
to engage people, in particular my mother-in-law, with how she was feeling. I said a few
words at the funeral and completely broke down. Instead of suppressing my emotions, I
let them flow. The big lesson for me in all of it is that the best way to be genuinely
empathetic is to simply let your guard down. Let go of a notion that you have to be a
certain way. Focus on the other person and on connecting with how they might be
feeling and just be your authentic self in the expression of empathy.

A lot of people have asked me how they can show up for me and my family. More often
than not the focus of their inquiry is on what words they should use. They want to make
sure that they won’t say something that will make a terrible situation worse.While I
appreciate the sentiment, what I always say is “let me assure you there is nothing
anyone can say that will make losing my son worse.” Empathy is not about words, it’s
about showing up for another when they most need it. It’s about letting the mknow that
you see them simply by being present for them and being willing to engage with
whatever emotion is present.