As humans, two of our deepest needs are connection and a sense of belonging with each other. And yet we struggle so much in trying to create those experiences with many of the people we know, including our partners, family, friends and co-workers. Somehow we find ourselves upset, frustrated, confused and disappointed, over and over.
How can it be that two of our most important human needs are so challenging to experience?
Let’s use the short answer: Because how we use language is what most often keeps us separate and confused. That, and the fact that the biological mandate to connect and belong is so intense that, when we find ourselves in disagreement, we can’t relax enough to consider what to effectively do about it. We use what we have been taught, which is to fight back, subsequently causing even more disconnection.
Luckily there is a remedy!
Listening for the other’s feelings and needs. Connecting to what’s important behind the words the person is actually using.
Easier said than done though. We might be inclined to say that it’s easy to use handouts, and that it sounds so delightful in class. It feels so good when we are present in a room where empathy is being modeled. Everyone relaxes. Everyone quiets down and breathes a little more deeply. The connection and calm is profoundly felt. Yet it remains elusive in actual practice with those who are important to us.
I think there are a couple of reasons.
1. It requires us to learn a new skill. That, in and of itself, seems like a challenge. It takes practice. Most people don’t practice the skill enough to master it.
2. Related to number 1, since finding the sweet spot of empathy takes a bit of time, a “stick-to-it-ive-ness” that eludes many; so they give up, just before the climax (pun intended), leaving everyone feeling a bit confused, frustrated and eager for some relief. Often relief looks like alone time, finding people that agree with us, making jokes or deciding to talk about something else.
In class recently, there was an opportunity to practice some real-time empathy between two people who had never met before. One of the individuals said something. The other individual had a strong-ish reaction to what the person said. Bear in mind, there was no long-standing disagreement or challenging history between the two people.
Because this is exactly what happens in real life, I encouraged the group to capture the opportunity to practice empathy.
After about 8-10 minutes, not quite connecting to the feelings and needs, one of the two participants involved asked two questions. 1. How about we just say that feelings change and let it go? 2. Is it possible that putting the spotlight on a person while requesting that they identify the feelings/needs makes the situation bigger than it is? In response to that, there was then another opportunity for empathy. Our choice could have been to put our attention on the feelings and needs of the asker, thus taking our attention away from the one who had the initial reaction, and thus further complicating what we are tracking for and where to focus our attention. All while 6 other people were watching and having thoughts, feelings and needs of their own.
This IS life. This is what happens.
Perhaps one could answer yes to both questions. For sure, people’s feelings will change, because something new will come up that we will respond to. But I’m not quite convinced that putting attention on something makes it bigger than it is. But then again, so what if it does? What if we stay focused on it just a little longer?
What then, was/is the impetus to shift our attention off of the feelings and precious needs of the person feeling them? Was it to relieve our own discomfort? Can we sit for as long as it takes to connect with what is so beautiful inside another being?
Generally it is not habitual for us to pay attention to someone for the sole purpose of connecting with what is alive in them. It might feel awkward at first, as this is a kind of profound intimacy—a tenderness, care, curiosity, acceptance and delight in their being, with nothing else required. It is quiet—a compelling “leaning in.” It also requires us to connect with ourselves and with these same energies, to soften our thoughts, quiet our minds, to hear with exquisite benevolence what is important to someone and how they might be struggling to have the experience they so deeply value. It is a generosity of our beings to want to know each other in this way. It is a sweet spot.
I encourage you to take the time, sit through the awkwardness, stay fully engaged in the curiosity and the care, and to allow someone to fully express themselves—to hold space for the boundless joy it is to connect with someone in this way. It is so deeply satisfying, an ecstatic experience. It is worth the time to persist to reach the Sweet Spot of Empathy.
Maybe we should call it the “E-Spot”