By john Kord Lageann
At THE children’s wing of the Grace-New Heaven Hospital, the carefully planed play-therapy program ran into a problem. The janitor was raising Cain with the kids when they dropped paint and putty on his clean floors. “I was angry at first,” the play nurse told me. “Then I tried putting myself in the janitor’s place to see why he felt the way he did.
“He had been scrubbing and polishing that floor for years, till he’d rubbed something of himself into it. When the children dropped their play-therapy material on his floor it was as if they’d thrown it in his face. Once I understood his feelings, I explained to him just how the children’s activity in this play period helped them get well. Now when he wipes up paint and clay he’s proud of his part in a child’s recovery.”
The play nurse was using empathy-a word that made its way out of the psychological laboratories to help us increase our understanding and enjoyment of people. Empathy is the ability to appreciate the other person’s feelings without yourself becoming so emotionally involved that your judgment is affected. It sharpens our perception in all sorts of situations in our daily lives. It’s a state of mind which anyone can develop and improve.
The biggest mistake in dealing with others is to underestimate the importance of their feelings. Dr. Abraham Stone, the well-known marriage counselor, once said: “Much of the tension in marriage could be relieved if each partner would as himself, each time his mate did something annoying: ‘What are the real feelings behind this behavior?” The husband who comes home from the office and picks on his wife may be taking out on her the anger he couldn’t express to his boss. If the wife understands this, it isn’t so hard for her to serve as a scapegoat. It’s much better than having her husband blow up at the office and lose his job.
“I hate you. I wish you were dead!” a child may shout. The wise parent, applying empathy, reaches back to the feelings which prompted such outbursts and gives them their true meaning which is usually: “I need you and you are paying no attention. Please show you love me.”
Empathy is akin to sympathy, but whereas sympathy says, “I feel as you do,” empathy says, “I know how you feel.” Empathy enables us to use our heads rather than our hearts. When you sympathize with someone in trouble, you catch and reflect some of his suffering; your anxiety in turn may increase his distress. But when you employ empathy you bring to bear a detached insight, which is of far greater help to that person in overcoming unhappiness. After all, if you are roped to your companions on a mountain-climbing expedition and one of your party falls over a cliff, you don’t help by jumping after him, but rather by making your footing secure enough to haul him back.
You can acquire empathy through role-playing. To grasp the essential feeling-pattern of another person, say yourself: “Now I am going to imagine that I am Jones is like. Often we assume that others feel exactly as we do when faced with a difficult situation. Empathy asks you to forget your own reactions while attempting to see through Jones’ eyes.
Older people who become alarmed at the antics of teenagers fail in empathy; instead of imagining themselves as teenagers again, they expect the younger generation to act like oldsters. On the other hand, Eisenhower and his staff during World War ll used empathy in deciding where the invasion of the Continent was to take place. What they said in effect was: “If we were the Germans on the other side of the Channel, when and where would we least expect an invasion?”
Malcolm S. Knowles told how he made a game of role-playing with his son Eric. This eight-year-old boy, chronically unable to come to the table when called, played that he was Father, and Father played that he was Eric. When Eric, as played by Father, used one excuse after another for not coming to the table, the real Eric said firmly, “if you don’t come by the time I count three, I’m going to dump your supper into the garbage can”-and he did. After that there was no more trouble about his being late.
Naturally, all of us practice empathy at times without knowing it. We’d be completely out of touch with people if we didn’t but the trick is to use this force consciously. There is nothing people will not tell us about themselves if only we tune in on the feelings behind their words and acts. And recognition of their feelings through empathy guards our own against being hurt.
A former salesgirl at Macy’s who is now a sales executive told me: “when I began selling behind the counter I was often shocked and hurt by customers’ rudeness. Then one day when a woman started ripping into me, I suddenly thought, ‘why, you poor thing, I know just how you feel. You’re probably frustrated in some way and you’re taking it out on me.’ The woman must have sensed my changed attitude toward her because she began to smile and even apologized. Ever since I’ve tried to look behind the front that people put up and ask myself how they feel inside. It’s amazing how much more I like people-and how much more they like me.”
A sense of isolation grips all of us at times. As one student in a large eastern university put it, “I feel like a B-minus walking around on two legs.” His professors may do nothing to relieve this feeling if they persist in regarding him only in academic terms. But one experienced counselor points out that when a student comes after class and asks for special help on a problem of chemistry, for example, what he really may want to say is, “I don’t think anybody knows I’m here, and nobody cares. Please, teacher, acknowledge that I count, that I am a person.” In some cases of counseling it has been found that more difficulties can be resolved by acknowledging how the student feels than by explaining the study problems he brings.
This awareness of how others think and feel can be the key to effective leadership and management. Dr.Rensis Liker, director emeritus of the University of Michigan’s Institute for social Research, said: “The worker who feels that his boss sees him only as a cog is likely to be a poor producer. But when he feels that his boss is genuinely interested in him-his problems, his future, and his well-being-he’s more likely to be a high producer.”
For the doctor, empathy provides an insight into a patient’s emotional state which enables the doctor to calm his anxieties and help him get well. As one doctor told me, empathy enables him “to find out what kind of patient the disease has got.”
Learning to use empathy takes patience. It’s necessary always to remember that empathy works only so long as you remain detached, acknowledging the other person’s feelings but never sharing them. But the effort is rewarding. Using empathy to enter the mind and heart of another human being can become a great adventure. Acquire this skill, and it will roll back the horizons of your daily life.