Can you listen--REALLY listen? by Roberta IsraeloffFrom Woman's Day
My in-laws had just returned from a harrowing drive back to New York City after wintering in Florida. "The first time the car broke down we were somewhere in North Carolina," my mother-in-law told me over the phone. "We had it fixed, and then it stalled again in Delaware. But the worst was on the Verrazano Bridge during rush hour. It seemed as if we'd never get home."
"That sounds horrible," I said, ready to launch into my own horror story--a car that conked out at 9:30 p.m. in a deserted mall parking lot.
But someone knocked at her door, so she had to say good-bye. "Thank you for listening," she added, "but thank you most of all for not telling me your worst car story."
My cheeks burning, I hung up. In the days ahead I found myself thinking about the wisdom of her parting words.
I can't count the number of times I've begun to complain--about a fight with my son, a professional disappointment or even car problems--only to have my friend cut me off with "The same thing just happened to me."
Suddenly we're talking about "her" ungrateful kid, "her" lousy boss, "her" leaky fuel line. And I'm left nodding my head in all the right places, wondering if we haven't all come down with a bad case of emotional attention deficit disorder.
It's easy to see how this version of empathy--"I know just how you feel and I can prove it"--gets confused with the real thing. Nothing's more natural than trying to soothe an overwrought friend with assurances that she's not alone.
But calamities resemble one another only from afar; up close they're as unique as fingerprints. Your friend's husband may have been downsized out of a job, just like your own, but no two families have identical bank accounts, severance packages or backup plans.
Saying "I feel your pain" also can be a prelude to offering advice "Here's what I did, and here's what you should do." But when a car trip takes three times as long as it should, or your child runs a high fever in the middle of the night, do you really want to hear how your friend coped with a similar situation?
What we all hope for when we're feeling low or agitated or wildly happy is to find a friend who sounds as if she has all the time in the world to listen. This ability to be with someone in her pain or happiness is the cornerstone of genuine empathy.
Fortunately, empathy is eminently easy to learn. Ever since the conversation with my mother-in-law, for example, I've squelched my impulse to interrupt a friend when she confides in me. I'm learning to follow the other person's lead, paying attention to body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and what is left unsaid.
I'm also more likely to recognize and appreciate empathy when I'm the beneficiary. The other day I called a friend to complain that I was feeling nervous and couldn't concentrate. "Want to tell me about it?" she offered. So I rambled on for a while.
Finally, I thanked her for listening, and asked how "she" was feeling.
"We can talk about me tomorrow," she said. Now that's empathy.
We don't always want answers or advice. Sometimes we just want company.