To engage empathically – “putting ourselves in the shoes of another” – can be seriously limited by reliance on words alone. E.g. “I feel hopeless”: ‘Hopeless’ - at a surface level - is a ‘concept’ word, a word created by others and suggesting an assumed meaning. As a concept word it offers little depth or insight into the individual. This is because a word like ‘hopeless’ can mean different things to different people, and the experience of hopelessness can feel and impact different people in different ways.
To assume understanding from words is far from real connection and understanding
Two key areas can help us connect at deeper and more meaningful levels… 1) evocative and descriptive language of experience; and 2) attunement to non-verbal communication (yours and the other’s). Just like a good movie, it’s descriptive and evocative language, and the depth of feeling and meaning that impact us.
Evocative and Descriptive Language
To be in another’s shoes requires both visualisation and being able to feel what the other feels. Metaphors, analogies, story-telling can all help a great deal. E.g. “I think I’m starting to feel depressed” vs “well …it’s like standing in an open field, watching this slow ominous storm moving towards me. Very low, dark clouds, no rain or lightening, all is still and escape seems impossible.” This can be just the beginning – such metaphors can be explored and expanded in many directions, e.g. “what else do you see? what’s behind you? What happens in your body as you describe this? Any other feelings are present? Is this familiar in any way? Who’s with you? Who would you like to be with you? Do you see any value/purpose to storms?”
All questions to help visualise and feel, to explore and learn about the person at a feeling and meaning level. Not questions to get their intellectual point of view, or logical ‘surface level’ rationalisations, and not questions aimed at simply ‘solving the problem’. We can solve a relationship problem yet never connect in the process. E..: “you don’t respect me!” “Ok, what do I need to do to show respect?” “you need to listen better, do your share around the house, and remember my birthday without being reminded.” Ok, I can do all that, will make sure I do.” The ‘problem’ is solved through (usually forced) behavioural change. Yet nowhere is the depth of feeling or meaning explored. The term ‘respect’ is another concept word - nowhere in this exchange is the depth of the other understood, felt or appreciated.
Attunement to Non-Verbals
Just as important as evocative language, is the radiation of the depth of feeling and emotion from the other through non-verbal communication. Many clients have said something along the lines of “if I just stopped (justifying/apologising/explaining/problems-solving) and looked at them …things may have gone differently”. Our human capacity for receptivity (and appropriate responsiveness) to this powerful communication tends to get lost in the modern world reliance on ‘rational’, logical language. Yet, we know this is precisely why we are moved, troubled or inspired by movies, music, art etc. I’ve heard actors and artists being described as “emotional avatars” – it’s all about emotional communication, projecting the ‘depth’ of themselves, and connecting with us.