Monday, August 16, 2010

Empathy In Diversity

Sometimes it can extremely hard to understand another person. This is particularly true when one comes up against cultural and/or religious differences, as well as, language barriers in a more international setting. But, this can also be the case within singular communities and local settings.

Take the United States, for instance. It is a country full of many different cultures, religions, languages, and moral mindsets. Within it, one does not even have to leave it's borders to come upon all kinds of diversity. So the question becomes, how do we show empathy through diversity, despite it's differences, situation and setting? How do we interact with others so that everyone feels as though they have been offered equal consideration and respect? And how do we stymie our own cultural/religious/moral mindsets, that tend to color our perceptions of the world around us and can sometimes prejudice us against others for any perceived differences, as we interact with such the diverse group of people that surround us? Let's look at this closer, shall we?

Empathic Communication

Empathic Communication is a set of skills which, when utilized, is a means towards healthy communication with others. And if done properly, it can engender those feelings within others, that their feelings have been taken into consideration and respected. So let's take a look at what helps and hinders this process.

1. Objectivity

One of the biggest things that hinders the process of Empathic Communication is when one has trouble feeling empathy toward other people. One reason people sometimes have trouble feeling empathy towards others involves their personal perceptions of the world (cultural, religious, political, social, etc.) and how they interpret and interact with the world through those perceptual filters. What this means is that our personal filters can, at times, prejudice us against people for any perceived differences, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. It can cause us to disregard or dismiss others out of hand, to be rude, to be aggressive, to be condescending, to be angry without cause, to be belligerent, or even, in an extreme form, to be violent.

How does one curtail these behaviors? The answer lays in keeping an objective mindset toward others as you interact with them. Being open minded means that you are not making assumptions and jumping to conclusions as you speak to someone. It means you are focusing on the person you are facing, actively listening as they speak, taking in what they say, and are respectful of their feelings, even if you disagree.

So try to keep an open mind as you interact with others. Allow yourself to see their point of view, without rash judgment. And try to stay objective.

2. Empathic Listening

Empathic Listening, which is also known as active listening, is a method of listening that involves understanding both the content of a message as well as the intent of the sender and the circumstances under which the message is given. It is a combination of:
  1. Having the intention to connect
  2. Focusing on clarifying the speakers needs first
  3. Remembering that criticism is someone's poorly expressed feelings and unmet needs.
  4. Checking the timing before offering your feelings, suggestions, corrections, etc.
In saying this, it is important to understand the benefits and process of Empathic Listening, because it plays such a vital role in the overall process of Empathic Communication. So now lets explore some the benefits of Empathic Listening and the process by which it is done.

The Benefits of Empathic Listening

Here is a list of benefits that arise through empathic listening.
1. builds trust and respect,
2. enables the one in need to release his/her emotions,
3. reduces tensions,
4. encourages the surfacing of information
5. creates a safe environment for sharing and problem solving
The Process of Empathic Listening
1. Give the person you are connecting with your full attention. Remember that the person in front of you is your sole focus at this singular moment in time. Multitasking, is a great thing, but not appropriate when working empathically with another person, particularly when practicing empathic listening. Their problem is in your hands, so your understanding and your time are reversely in theirs.
2. Do not speak when the other person is in the middle of communicating their issue. Empathic listening means that it is your job to actually hear what is being said, and reach to the heart of the topic to achieve full understanding of the situation. In doing this you need to find out specifics such as who is involved, what the actual problem is, and what are the extenuating circumstances that circle the problem. All of this information goes to help you give the best informed resolution you can find. Without it, perhaps through the act of not listening closely enough, you might miss an intrinsic part of the problem.
3. Offer a summary of what you have heard to the speaker, when they are done talking. This means you take what you have heard and reword it, offering them a summarized version of what they have said. It need be no more than an outline going over all of the most important key points of their problem. This affirms to them that you were listening, and reaffirms to yourself what you heard.
3. Empathic Concern

Wikipedia says this about Empathic Concern:
Empathic concern refers to other-oriented emotions elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone in need. These other-oriented emotions include feelings of tenderness, sympathy, compassion, soft-heartedness, and the like. Empathic concern is often and wrongly confused with empathy.

To empathize is to respond to another's perceived emotional state by experiencing feeling of a similar sort. Empathic concern or sympathy not only include empathizing, but also entails having a positive regard or a non-fleeting concern for the other person.
What this means is that not only do you try to see from another person's point of view and feel what they feel, we also feel genuine concern for their well being enough to actively listening without falling into any of these obstacles.

10 Obstacles to Empathic Communication
Some common forms of communication that block empathy and take the focus away from the speaker

1. Giving Advice / Fixing: Tell the other person what you think they should do.
“I think you should leave your boyfriend and find somebody else to be with.”
2. Analyzing: Interpreting or evaluating a person’s behavior
“I think you are taking this out on your ex-wife when you are actually frustrated about your divorce.”
3. Storytelling: Moving the focus away from the other and back to your own experience.
“I know just how you feel. This reminds me of a time that I…”
4. Sympathy: Either feeling sorry for other, or sharing my own feelings about what they said.
“Oh, you poor thing… I feel so sad for you.”
5. Reassuring / Consoling: Trying to make the person “feel better” by telling them things will improve.
“You might be upset now, but I’m sure you will feel better soon.”
6. Shutting Down: Discounting a person’s feelings and trying to shift them in another direction.
“Quit feeling sorry for yourself,” or, “There is no reason to feel that way!”
7. Correcting: Giving the person your opinion or belief about a situation.
“Wait a minute – I never said that!” or, “You don’t remember this accurately.”
8. Interrogating: Using questions to ‘figure out’ or change the person’s behavior.
“When did this begin?” or, “Why did you decide to do that?” or, “What got into you?”
9. Commiserating: Agreeing with the speaker’s judgments of others.
“I know what you mean – your cousin is one of the biggest jerks I have ever met!”
10. One-upping: Convincing the speaker that whatever they went through, you had it worse.
“You think that’s bad? Let me tell you what happened to me when I was in that situation!”
4. Assertiveness

Inside the blog post called The Art Of Being An Empath: Empathy and Assertiveness we learned that assertiveness has much to do with empathy. We will only linger on this subject to add that Assertiveness is described as:

As a communication style and strategy, assertiveness is distinguished from aggression and passivity. How people deal with personal boundaries, their own and those of other people, helps to distinguish between these three concepts. Passive communicators do not defend their own personal boundaries and thus allow aggressive people to abuse or manipulate them through fear. Passive communicators are also typically not likely to risk trying to influence anyone else. Aggressive people do not respect the personal boundaries of others and thus are liable to harm others while trying to influence them. A person communicates assertively by overcoming fear to speak his or her mind or trying to influence others, but doing so in a way that respects the personal boundaries of others. Assertive people are also willing to defend themselves against aggressive.

When we act assertively, instead of aggressively and/or passively, in any type of interaction with others, we give consideration and respect to the other person's thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. We respect their personal boundaries and do not attempt to manipulate them. We do not condescend. We stand on equal footing with that person, all the while, maintaining our own personal boundaries and preserving our own thoughts, emotions and perceptions at the same time.

You see, part of Empathy, particularly when discussing diversity, is the ability to stand on equal footing with another person instead of standing above or below them. Let's try and look at this from another perspective called Transactional Analysis.

Transactional analysis describes 3 different states of the ego and how they interact with one another. They are the parent ego state, adult ego state, and child ego state.

The parent ego state expresses the behaviors, thoughts and feelings of parental figures. Thus, it takes on a state of condescension because it approaches the other person as though they were a child in need of being taught, guided, or placated. It is a more dominant approach during an interaction with someone.

The child ego state expresses the behaviors, thoughts and feelings replayed from childhood. This ego state can manifest when it interacts with what it perceives to be a parent ego state, as it might have done with the adults in actual childhood. It takes a submissive role to the more dominant parent role.

The adult ego state expresses the behaviors, thoughts and feelings which are direct responses to the here and now. What this means is that when you are in the adult ego state you are in the present. You are aware of all of your options as the person you are, and you are in contact with whats going on in the here and now. You experience emotions in response to what is happening in the present. You are aware of what is real and what isn't. And you apply problem solving skills toward any problems that might arise. This ego state promotes the ability to ask for help and make healthy decisions and engenders intimacy and spontaneity.

If one adopts a parent approach in a discussion, they are more likely to get a child's reaction of anger, resentment, frustration, and disinterest. If one instead uses the adult approach they are more likely to receive an adult response from the other person. And this leaves both parties standing on equal footing, where empathy can occur. It facilitates respectful boundaries, empathic understanding, and the ability to be assertive at the same time.

Healthy Communication

In order to allow empathy in diversity, one must strive toward healthy communication. Here are some steps that will help you work toward that goal.

Steps Of Healthy Communication
  1. Stay Focused: Sometimes it’s tempting to bring up past seemingly related conflicts when dealing with current ones. Unfortunately, this often clouds the issue and makes finding mutual understanding and a solution to the current issue less likely, and makes the whole discussion more taxing and even confusing. Try not to bring up past hurts or other topics. Stay focused on the present, your feelings, understanding one another and finding a solution.
  2. Listen Carefully: People often think they’re listening, but are really thinking about what they’re going to say next when the other person stops talking. Truly effective communication goes both ways. While it might be difficult, try really listening to what your partner is saying. Don’t interrupt. Don’t get defensive. Just hear them and reflect back what they’re saying so they know you’ve heard. Then you’ll understand them better and they’ll be more willing to listen to you.
  3. Try To See Their Point of View: In a conflict, most of us primarily want to feel heard and understood. We talk a lot about our point of view to get the other person to see things our way. Ironically, if we all do this all the time, there’s little focus on the other person’s point of view, and nobody feels understood. Try to really see the other side, and then you can better explain yours. (If you don't 'get it', ask more questions until you do.) Others will more likely be willing to listen if they feel heard.
  4. Respond to Criticism with Empathy: When someone comes at you with criticism, it’s easy to feel that they’re wrong, and get defensive. While criticism is hard to hear, and often exaggerated or colored by the other person’s emotions, it’s important to listen for the other person’s pain and respond with empathy for their feelings. Also, look for what’s true in what they’re saying; that can be valuable information for you.
  5. Own What’s Yours: Realize that personal responsibility is a strength, not a weakness. Effective communication involves admitting when you’re wrong. If you both share some responsibility in a conflict (which is usually the case), look for and admit to what’s yours. It diffuses the situation, sets a good example, and shows maturity. It also often inspires the other person to respond in kind, leading you both closer to mutual understanding and a solution.
  6. Use “I” Messages: Rather than saying things like, “You really messed up here,” begin statements with “I”, and make them about yourself and your feelings, like, “I feel frustrated when this happens.” It’s less accusatory, sparks less defensiveness, and helps the other person understand your point of view rather than feeling attacked.
  7. Look for Compromise Instead of trying to ‘win’ the argument, look for solutions that meet everybody’s needs. Either through compromise, or a new solution that gives you both what you want most, this focus is much more effective than one person getting what they want at the other’s expense. Healthy communication involves finding a resolution that both sides can be happy with.
  8. Take a Time-Out: Sometimes tempers get heated and it’s just too difficult to continue a discussion without it becoming an argument or a fight. If you feel yourself or your partner starting to get too angry to be constructive, or showing some destructive communication patterns, it’s okay to take a break from the discussion until you both cool off. Sometimes good communication means knowing when to take a break.
  9. Don’t Give Up: While taking a break from the discussion is sometimes a good idea, always come back to it. If you both approach the situation with a constructive attitude, mutual respect, and a willingness to see the other’s point of view or at least find a solution, you can make progress toward the goal of a resolution to the conflict. Unless it’s time to give up on the relationship, don’t give up on communication.
  10. Ask For Help If You Need It: If one or both of you has trouble staying respectful during conflict, or if you’ve tried resolving conflict with your partner on your own and the situation just doesn’t seem to be improving, you might benefit from a few sessions with a therapist. Couples counseling or family therapy can provide help with altercations and teach skills to resolve future conflict. If your partner doesn’t want to go, you can still often benefit from going alone.

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