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