by Rev. Randy Smit (listen to Randy at http://revrandy.podbean.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments, etc., and to sign up for his occasional Compassionate Connection email newsletter with helpful articles like this one.)
Let's say a friend asks you over for coffee, wanting to share something that's been bothering her. In this instance, we'll also assume this is not a person with whom you're frustrated or in conflict, but simply someone you'd like to offer some empathy. Still, you know how pesky distractions can become, how challenging it can be to "be with" someone without doing, commiserating or fixing their problem. Here are a few things you may want to try...
-- Check in to see if this is really a good time for you. Your calendar may be open, you may want to be a good friend. But if you're keenly aware that your own inwardness is full of its own noise or tangles, perhaps it's better to wait until a later time when you can be more present.
-- Check your gut. To extend empathy is to be fully present to the other person. As we speak with someone, one of the best indicators of our connection with the other is our body. If, while listening, I begin to feel tight or experience pressure in different parts of my neck or back, I want to pay attention to this. I want to ask myself -- "Why is there pressure now? What's alive inside? What am I telling myself? Am I becoming resistant to what I'm hearing or trying to solve this problem? Why?"
-- Fully Present!? "Is that even possible? How can I keep my mind from speaking to me while I'm trying to listen?" You can't, nor do you have to. In fact, observing your thought and paying attention to what's alive inside can be a very good way of staying connected to the other. Because it's important to you to extend this kind of empathic care, it's good to hold that desire and to stay with it in a very intentional way. Thoughts and questions may come, but checking in can keep us tuned in to our desire to simply hold space for the other. Although it seems strange, deep self connection is really the only way to offer the other a caring, nonanxious presence. This can take on a feeling of prayerfulness. For me it can sometimes come to life as a mantra of "check-in... reach out... check-in... reach out..." or "I'm here with you, I'm here with you."
-- It's not about me. In my effort to empathize, what the other person is offering may trigger all kinds of strong feelings within me. I may even be tempted to over identify and begin telling stories if I find a strong resonance with them. It usually comes out something like this: "That happened to me once, you wouldn't believe it, there was this one time..." and then I'm pretty clearly done being present, at least until I wake up again. Identifying with someone is wonderful, but over identifying always implies a shift back to myself.
-- What if they ask for advice? It's often helpful to hear the experience of others as we address daily challenges. If your friend genuinely wants to know about some of your own experiences, simply make sure you've received a clear invitation to do so. A good friend of mine, when feeling the strong desire to offer input or an idea, tries to ask herself seven times "am I sure that this is important enough to offer?" She then asks if it would be okay for her to offer something and tries to remain open to a "no."
-- Enjoy the experience. Don't forget that this is about the beauty of human connectedness. It can often feel very freeing to give oneself permission not to solve the other persons problem or become a champion of their cause. Being freed up from this assumed responsibility can put us in a place of full availability, a place that's free of pressure where the love that is in us can flow freely.