I thought I was empathizing.
It was nearly 20 years ago.
I had a dear friend who was suffering from bipolar depression.
At the time, I had recently graduated from college with a degree in computer science. I prided myself in being an excellent problem solver. So I was determined… to solve my friend’s problem.
So What did I do? Well, I started by reading books, articles, papers, you name it, I read them all.
After gaining enough understanding of the theory of depression, I went to a local support group looking for some practical advice.
What I learned there was that the best way to help my friend was to try and empathize with her.
What this meant was that the next time my friend got depressed, I was to sit down with her and listen to her carefully. Once I could understand how she’s feeling and why, I was to express this understanding back to her. According to the people at the support group, if my understanding was correct, my friend will feel understood and that’ll make her feel better.
I was surprised.
It sounded too easy to be true.
But then I tried.
The whole time I was trying to empathize with her, she kept yelling, screaming, and bawling. Telling me that I did not understand.
What was I supposed to do? I kept changing what I said, over and over and over again, hoping… that I would eventually get through to her.
But I couldn’t.
Nearly half an hour went by and I was just sitting there with all my energy drained, exhausted and unable to figure out what I was missing.
But then… something occurred to me.
I suddenly remembered that, earlier in the day, I had said something to her, which, in hindsight, was hurtful.
So I told her that.
And like magic, she stopped yelling and screaming, as she sat there sobbing… while I finally… empathized with her.
What I realize now is that everything I’d been telling her up to that point was framed in such a way that it was all. her. fault, and I had nothing to do with it.
This was not because I had malicious intent. In fact, I had great intentions. I cared for her well-being. I wanted to help. This is the very definition of compassion!
Yet, in hindsight, I learned that despite best intentions, compassion actually lead me to frame the situation as a problem to be solved. And in doing so, 3 things happened to my mindset. 3 things… that lead me to unintentionally do more harm than good.
Now, what do I mean by this?
Distancing to Divide
First of all, I played the role of a problem solver. In doing so, I subconsciously distanced myself from my friend, to the point where I felt sufficiently divided from her.
Why did I do this? Because I was there to help her. Not the other way around. I was concerned for her wellbeing. Not mine. After all, my friend was the one with the problem, not I.
How can a problem solver possibly be a part of the problem? How can the helper be the one being helped? They can’t. It makes perfect sense for us to be divided.
But of course, in the end, I realized that I was, in fact, a part of the problem. My distancing blinded me to this.
Elevating to Judge
Second of all, in treating my friend as someone with a problem, I subconsciously elevated myself above her, to the point where I considered myself to have the superior authority to judge. Judge not only her problem as bad, but also my understanding of the problem as right.
Why? Well… Because I spent months studying depression. I may not have been the world’s expert, but I was surely a better judge than she was!
But of course, in the end, I realized that I was not a good judge at all. She was feeling the way she was, not because of depression, but because of something hurtful I had said. That’s not something I knew enough to claim authority. In other words, I didn’t know enough to elevate myself above her and judge.
So she was not wrong to reject my understanding. In fact, if anybody was wrong, it was me. I was wrong.
Focusing to Hold on
Finally, I held onto my distance and judgment. Not only that, but I also held on to a solution I had come up with even before entering the conversation.
Guess what solution I had imagined for my friend?
She. just had. to. cheer. up!
What a beautifully simple solution, right?
I held on to this solution, because I also held on to the judgment that my understanding of her was right.
But of course, in the end, I not only realized that my solution was wrong, but that the actual solution was completely new and unexpected. Yet, it was also so very obvious, simple, and even logical in hindsight. So much so that I could not understand why I hadn’t thought of in the first place. So what I had to do was actually let go of my judgment and solution, not hold on to them.
Empathizing and Not Empathizing
In the popular media, there is significant misunderstanding around what it means to empathize. Most confuse it with feeling what other people are feeling (That’s called emotional contagion.). Many people, like I did, also confuse techniques like active listening as being analogous to empathizing. It isn’t.
Empathizing isn’t something we do, it’s something that happens. It is an event and an experience, when we enter a state of feeling as if we’re connected or at one with an “other.” Reflecting on my mindset at the time, I now clearly see that I was entering a state that made it harder for myself to empathize with my friend. I thought I was empathizing, but I clearly wasn’t.
This isn’t to say that there’s nothing we can do. There are plenty of things we can do. Listening actively is one of them. It’s just that merely listening actively is not always enough.
Looking back, something that greatly surprised me was that once I empathized with her she thanked me.
Why was this surprising?
Because it was not what I thought was worthy of her gratitude.
It took me a significant amount of reflection before I became aware of the fact that my compassion was tied to my own need to make a contribution to her life. Reflection also helped me become aware of a belief I had, which was that to contribute to her life I had to problem solve.
Since I was unaware of how my own needs and beliefs were tied to this, I was so surprised that she didn’t appreciate this. In fact, after several trials, I started to feel indignant of how ungrateful she was of my efforts to help her. Why? Because she was not appreciating what I thought she should appreciate.
In hindsight, I am now more surprised that what I called “caring” meant little more than trying to persuade her. I wanted to get her appreciate what I appreciated. I was trying to manipulate her! Seen this way, I realized that the way I was expressing my compassion and contribution got in the way… of actually contributing to her life.
Such… is what I call the “irony of care.”
Now, let me be clear.
I do not wish to criticize the problem solving mindset.
A problem solving mindset is most certainly appropriate when faced with a problem like so:
1 + 1 = ___
- You cannot influence the problem, which means you cannot be a part of the problem. Thus, it makes no difference that you divide yourself from the problem.
- There’s no ambiguity around what is right/wrong or good/bad. Thus, assuming to have the authority to judge does not imply superiority.
- There is only one solution. Feel free to hold on to it.
Problem solve away if these conditions are met. It is only when these conditions are not met that you need an alternative mindset.
Now that I’m in my 40s, it’s been almost 20 years since the time of the incident with my friend. Yet, I still find this event to be a gift that keeps on giving.
In my work, I frequently work with CEOs who have no choice but to frame employee growth and engagement as a problem to be solved. I also work with employees who have no choice but to frame executive leadership as a problem to be solved. They both inevitably find out that problem solving is ill-suited for the situation. How do they find out? Usually, when the employees don’t grow much or leave and the executives start to burn-out or become even more agitated.
I recently gave a keynote at Cleveland Clinics’s Patient-Experience Summit, where I learned that doctors had framed patient-care as a problem to be solved. The patients, of course, had framed these doctors’ approach to care as a problem to be solved. As a result, not only were patients not getting any better and leaving to other hospitals, but the doctors were burning out as well. They had both learned that problem solving is ill-suited for the situation.
To judge any of these as good/bad or right/wrong misses the point. This is merely what happens naturally when we individually do not have the freedom to choose an alternative mindset to problem solving in the relationship that is giving rise to the problem solving mindset. It is also a natural byproduct of an environment that doesn’t make it any easier for people to empathize with each other.
Learning to choose an alternative mindset or designing an environment that makes it easier for people to empathize with each other is a difficult challenge. Perhaps a way to get us started is to ask ourselves and each other the following question and to answer it in an honest way.
Why do we believe the problem solving mindset is appropriate to our situation?”
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Photo credit to Nicdalic