Empathy Thoughts - Finding an entry, imagining a space

It is very possible that I am making this too difficult. I had an idea of writing a few blog posts about empathy, leading up to the workshop in June. It seemed like a good idea, since I had brainstormed so many different directions I could take in the workshop and had to narrow it down to a few for the day. But what to do with all the other material? Why not create blog posts?

So I thought to myself, ‘definitions are a good place to start.’ And I began looking up empathy, sympathy, apathy. I read a lot. Too much. I got confused and overwhelmed. I felt myself drowning in the wave of many other voices explaining my thoughts to me. An afternoon was spent drawn into fascinating articles and links. The impostor syndrome started creeping into the back of my mind: ‘What are you doing? There are people who are experts in this area. Experts. They know things. They’ve researched and written and proved. What on earth could you add to the mix?’

I was tempted to create a blog post filled with links to other people’s words on empathy, YouTube clips of brilliant animations and talks, funny interviews, compelling articles. It would be relatively easy, and it would look slick. It would prove I had done my homework; I had done my research into what other people think.

But that was never the point.

What I wanted was to take the time and space here to work out what I think about empathy. To invite you to share what you think. Perhaps start a conversation.

On the empathy blog, Lynne Cameron talks about entry points for empathy. I like the idea of needing to find an entry point. Entry points could be a bit of common ground, a shared experience, a similar point of view. What are your entry ways into empathy?

To push the metaphor further, what happens once we go through an entry point? When I think of entry, I think of entering into a space. What does that space look like? What would it mean for someone to offer you an empathic space in which you can attempt to see, to witness one another?

I imagine an empathic space as a very clear, very open room. It is full of possibility and free of clutter. Opinions and verdicts may bang at the door, but I make them wait outside. What I want in an empathic space is neutral territory. Blank walls, on which we can project dreams and demons, clean canvases ready to catch stories launched with paint, empty pages waiting to be filled with ink, open areas in which we dance, stretch or lie down. It is a space in which we mix experience and memory towards an alchemy of connection. And what I want from an empathic listener is to be seen without being judged or fixed. I want someone who is there and says ‘I see you. I hear you. I am listening. I am open.’  I would try my best to offer the same.

When we leave an empathic space, what is left behind? What do we carry away with us?

Perhaps we leave behind the muddle of words and images and movements and thoughts. We leave behind the rough draft of understanding that we had to put forward to begin approaching clarity.

Perhaps we carry away the seeds of progress. A profound sense of connection, despite surface differences. A sense of awe, of humility, of faith.

In my next post, maybe I’ll get back to some of those definitions: empathy, sympathy, apathy. The great research is out there – just google ‘empathy and sympathy’ or ‘empathy’ and you’ll find a treasure trove. But before consulting the experts, I challenge you to articulate a few ideas of your own on empathy. I’m convinced this makes conversations richer and more resonant.