Friday, January 6, 2012

The Power of Empathy

A few years back, my dear friend Janet S., taught me about 'understanding emotions' and...the Power of Empathy.  It changed my life.  And...I feel to blog about it today.

Yesterday I came across a gal on twitter whose 'about me' was something like "detester of unsolicited advice'.  I think I knew what she was trying to say. 

In this day of plentiful information, oftimes, well-meaning friends, neighbors, co-workers, family members etc. feel the need to 'help' when someone shares a concern or challenge they are having.  You probably know just what I'm talking about.  Comments beginning with 'you should' or....'you need to' or....'just do such-and-such' are more frequent than we may realize.   Are they helpful?  Or - is there a higher principal?  I tend to believe the latter.

Years ago, after serving a mission in Mexico, I was hired to teach at the M.T.C.  in Provo, Utah.  I'll tell you now that it was, by far, the favorite job I've ever had.  I LOVED these missionaries.  And, over the 3 1/2 yrs. there, was blessed to be the 'teacher' of hundreds of them.  Part of our responsibilities (3 teachers per group of 8-12 missionaries) was to 'interview' each missionary once-a-week for the 8 weeks they were there.  We were to visit with them one-on-one, evaluate their progress and listen to any concerns or challenges they might be having.  Since I was only a few years older than these young elders and sisters I didn't always know what to say when they were struggling.  But, I listened and cared and....prayed mightily in my heart for things to come to mind if the Spirit had something that I could share with them.  Sometimes that was the case.  But, more often than not, they just need to be listened to and cared about.  They needed 'empathy'. 

This lesson came most powerfully to me thanks to a sincere and humble Elder.  He was really struggling.  He was homesick, having challenges with his assigned companion, not understanding the language very well even though he was working hard and, basically, feeling a bit discouraged.  As I truly listened and sincerely asked a few questions - he started to work things out - outloud.  As I empathized (not knowing what else to do or say) he came to his own conclusions/answers as he talked.  By the end of the interview he was a new person (as was I).  He was happier, less-stressed, hopeful and...grateful.  His comment to me "you are the best teacher' helped me learn a beautiful principle that I needed to learn.  It wasn't that I was the best teacher - it was that I sincerely cared and listened - which provided HIM an opening to figure out the answers which were already IN HIM.

I've thought of this principle often over the years; that most of us have the answers within ourselves if we'll take the time to really ponder, listen and pray.  If we can be 'still' enough to feel what we already know deep inside and also to what the Spirit can teach us - we'll find most of the answers that we are seeking.

The Lord, himself, is perfect Empathy and...the Healer of All wounds. It's not our role to 'fix' others' or to 'tell' them what we think they should do.  We are imperfect, broken too, and lack the complete story.  We are to learn to love, serve, care about and empathize with those that mourn.  HIS Perfect and Complete Role is as Healer and Mender of All Broken Things.  We would do well to TURN TO HIM (help others' do the same) and doubt not, fear not.

See Also: Elder Packer  "The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior."

Picture:  The Gentle Healer