Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Emotional Hospitality and Communication

Written by: on October 25, 2019

I sat at the table across from the guidance counselor debating how to ask the question that was bouncing around my head. My friend Jessica was going through a rough time and I felt really sad. Not sad for her, but sad like she was sad – as if it were happening to me. This feeling confused me, a seventh grade boy with highly unemotional parents, which lead me to the counselors office. Finally, in a flurry of words I asked her what this feeling was and why I was having it. She thought for a minute then said to me, “what you are describing is empathy and it is a normal thing to feel.” I left that meeting feeling less odd about my own feelings and it allowed me to help my friend rather than watch impotently as her life fell apart.

Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries says that “empathy is a key dimension of emotional intelligence”1 The ability to recognize emotions and how those emotions are guiding our actions is important, but equally important is the ability understand other people’s actions in in light of their emotions. Empathy is a key skill in this task. “To acquire empathy, we have to learn how to see ourselves from the outside and others from the inside.”2 A simple step in getting there, he argues, is to learn how to be good listeners. Listening is a lost skill in our world that is continually pushing for us to provide a response. In listening well we hear not only the words, but the emotions behind them and are able to allow those feelings to resonate within ourselves. A more full and appropriate response is then available to us. So much communication now is about being angry at the other side without understanding the motivations that lead that person to where they are at. Empathy is not about validating a person’s actions, it’s about understanding them in light of their emotional state. Understanding leads to better communication and better communication leads to fewer knee jerk reactions.

I like to think of empathy as emotional hospitality. It is the practice of providing space for the other’s emotions and allowing them to freely exist within us. It is a way of allowing someone else to be seen and feel welcome regardless of the emotions being expressed. We are then able to more fully experience the relationship that is happening. Emotional hospitality is often the first step of other forms of hospitality.

One of the most difficult challenges I have felt as a foster parent is to love my kid’s biological parents. For a long time I could not do it, I felt a great deal of anger toward them that they had put their children through all this trauma. It was not until I tried to understand what lead to the children being brought into care. I felt the exhaustion of raising multiple kids at once and the desire to have a break. I felt the tug of my own addictions and how they could easily lead me to do undesirable things. It was only in accepting these feelings that I started to understand the biological parents. What they ended up doing was wrong, but I understood them and how they got there. I was able to forgive them. I was able to love them. I was able to pray for them. Emotional hospitality allowed all that to happen. If we want more peace in our world, we need to be willing to open ourselves up and be emotionally hospitable to the other, even (or especially) when we disagree.

1 Kets De Vries, Manfred F. R. Down the Rabbit Hole of Leadership: Leadership Pathology in Everyday Life. S.l.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 130

2 ibid. 132

About the Author

Sean Dean

An expat of the great state of Maine where the lobster is cheap and the winters are brutal I've settled in as a web developer in Tacoma, Washington. As a foster-adoptive parent of 3 beautiful boys, I have deep questions about the American church's response to the public health crisis that is our foster system.

12 responses to “Emotional Hospitality and Communication”

  1. Sean, I feel with you and can relate with your experience of parenting as a foster parent and I love your use of the term emotional hospitality which is a competency that you’ve to grow into to be good at empathizing. We take care of thousands of children from vulnerable communities and we have to trust God to God to create an environment in our schools, to aid in the healing process of these children. We’ve to constantly remind our staff of their parental responsibility towards all these children and how important it is to empathize with them, to help them accept their situations and take responsibility to dream and work towards better lives for themselves and their families. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  2. Jenn Burnett says:

    Sean what a beautiful reflection. It floods my heart with warmth and hope. You even make significant room for us to see how loving ‘our enemies’ can happen, and even move us to place of empathising with them. I’m curious how we might hold in tension ‘emotional hospitality’ and self differentiation? Personally I find this a very hard separation and find myself between one or the other. Bless you my friend!

    • Sean Dean says:

      I was talking with a friend about empathy a week or so ago and she mentioned that one of the most important skills of the empathetic is learning when to let the feelings go. I’m not sure that there is a formula for when you need to let go and separate out your feelings. It’s one of those things you have to learn over time. It requires as much knowledge about yourself as about the other. It’s a lot of trial and error, but if you’re purposeful about it then you’ll find success in it.

  3. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    I love your concept of emotional hospitality and how good listening contributes to holding this space for others. You truly are empathic and a wonderful communicator of concepts that explain and connect with others. Also, thanks so much for sharing the very real and understandable struggles of raising multiple children. Thank you so much!

    • Sean Dean says:

      Thank you Harry. You’re pretty emotionally hospitable yourself. Listening is hard, particularly when you disagree. But if I can put myself in that person’s shoes I can usually find some common ground to start a conversation.

  4. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent post and stories to illustrate empathy. I especially appreciate your terminology “emotional hospitality” as it paints a beautiful picture of the posture of empathy toward another.

    • Sean Dean says:

      Thank you Tammy. I’m finding more and more that a posture of welcome is the starting point to all progress. I was joking with Russ last week that the problem with studying hospitality is that everything becomes a hospitality problem. I think that’s what happened here, I started to see and understand empathy through the lens of hospitality and thus emotional hospitality it became. Thanks again.

  5. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Cool reflection on empathy, Sean. In the world of Christian relationships I understand empathy being central to community. What place do you think it holds in community threatening crisis? Kets de Vries seems to offer conflicting views when, on one hand he encourages empathy in understanding another persons actions, but on the other, he celebrates the leadership of Churchill in WW2 along with other leaders who had to restrain their empathy for individuals to ensure the survival of the masses in the the face of an extraordinary death rate – peace wasn’t on the table for Churchill because he knew his enemy.
    Perhaps, then, empathy is misunderstood? It is said, that Churchill was so terrifying, even Hitler was concerned over his appointment as Prime Minister. I am trying to understand the way in which we manage empathy in the face of conflict. Is it possible that Churchill’s empathy was to understand Hitler through the lens of his own historic failures, thus understanding, as no one else did, Hitler’s emotional menace to the world at the time. Can empathy lead to justified use of military restraint? Is Christian empathy suited to global leadership? Or is it only useful in the framework of Kingdom communities? If you could knock out a quick answer I can get some sleep tonight 🙂

    • Sean Dean says:

      My initial thought is that perhaps empathy is a tool for the diplomat and not so much for the general. That is to say empathy helps when trying to peacefully solve a problem, not so much when you have to destroy it. That being said Sun Tzu in “The Art of War” did say,

      If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

      So perhaps there’s a place for empathy for generals as well.

  6. Mary Mims says:

    Sean, I love the emotional hospitality because we can be present but not really all in. Thank you for the reminder.

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