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The Power of Empathy

One of my favorite films of the past few years is Little Miss Sunshine, a story about a family that travels in their Volkswagen Minibus from New Mexico to California for a children's beauty pageant.

What I remember most about Little Miss Sunshine is a scene where Dwayne - a Nietzsche-reading, sullen teenager who has kept a vow of silence for nine months to show his commitment to becoming a pilot - discovers that he is color-blind; this discovery leads to the devastating realization that his quest to become a pilot is over.

Dwayne has a panic attack in the back seat of the van, leading his father (a struggling life coach) to pull over onto the shoulder of the highway. Dwayne jumps out of the van, and the family watches helplessly as he runs wildly on a nearby field while cursing at the world.

Dwayne's parents watch their son with mixed emotions - on the one hand, they are sad for their son, but on the other hand, they are desperate to get their 7-year old daughter, Olive, to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest on time.

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Dwayne's mom, Sheryl, tries to say the right thing to comfort Dwayne and get him back in the van so that Olive can make her pageant. Not comforted in the slightest, Dwayne screams at his family, telling them how disgusted he is with how dysfunctional they are.

After exhausting himself Dwayne plops to the ground, defeated and depressed.

Olive, feeling her brother's pain, slowly walks up to his side, crouches down, leans against him, and wordlessly puts her arm around his shoulders. She sits with him like this in silence. And a short while after, Dwayne gets over his disappointment, at least enough to walk back to the van with his kid sister. Dwayne apologizes to his family for screaming obscenities out of frustration, and the family gets back on the road to rush to the pageant.

I love this scene because of how beautifully it captures the power of genuine empathy.

In my experience, being empathetic with others is the most important habit that we can adopt to create and maintain lasting, meaningful relationships.

As Stephen Covey explains in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, empathy involves seeking first to understand, then to be understood.

Covey points out that most of us have spent many years learning how to read and write, but very few of us have spent significant time learning how to effectively listen to others.

Covey explains that for almost all of us, it's natural to listen to others with our own experiences and thoughts churning in our minds, and that our instincts are usually to respond with our evaluations, probing comments, advice, and interpretations.

Early on in our marriage, when my wife, Margaret, had a frustrating conversation with her mom, she would sometimes vent by telling me about the things that she disliked about her family, and what she would change about her mom if she could.

Not wanting to see Margaret and her mom have bad feelings toward one another, I would often respond with things like:

"You sure that's what your mom meant?" (evaluating).

"Why does that bother you so much?" (probing and evaluating).

"Can't you just let your mom say what's on her mind and let it slide off your shoulders?" (advising).

"Looks to me like your mom is just worried about you and wants to make sure that you are okay." (interpreting and evaluating).

As you can guess, none of these and similar responses allowed Margaret to feel like I really "got" what she was feeling. I was so anxious to patch things up between her and her mother that I failed to give her the support she could have used to patch up her own heart before gathering the will to improve her relationship with her mom.

What all of us need most when we're sharing our inner turmoil with a trusted friend or family member is to feel like our friend or family member really understands what we are feeling, and that they actually give a damn. Once we get the "psychological and emotional air" that we desperately need, we stand a much better chance of making mature decisions that lead to healing rather than permanent fractures.

Covey explains in detail how to provide such empathic listening to others, and wisely points out that the highest and ideal level of empathic listening should flow from a genuine concern for the other person's feelings and life. To be empathetic without really caring for the other person's well-being is like applying a greasy human-relations technique that will most likely end up causing great hurt for both parties.

If you want to learn how to improve your most important relationships by becoming an empathic listener, I highly recommend that you read the chapter on seeking first to understand, then being understood in Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I think that this might be the most important chapter of any book that I have ever read. To this day, whenever I experience conflict with a friend or family member, I go back to this chapter to help me remember to be empathetic, and to figure out how I could have been a better friend.

If, in the days ahead, you embrace the journey of being an empathic friend to others, I encourage you to remember what Olive shows us in Little Miss Sunshine: Empathy doesn't always require the right words; words or no words, people can usually feel how we feel about them.

If you have any thoughts on this topic, please feel free to share in the comments section below.

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I am a ninety year old admirer of you and your website. You come accross as being a very kind and warm hearted indivual,and I always look forward to each issue Keep up the good work

I just read 7 Habits this year and I agree with you, that it is one of the best and most important books that one must read to improve their personal life and relationships! The principals set forth in this book will set one up for success in every arena of life.

What I have found in my years of listening to those that I love is that we really already know the answers to our problems. We just need a kind and loving ear to listen to us without judgement. After we are reassured that we are loved unconditionally by our listener, we can then start to use our intellects to solve the issue at hand. Simple but true.

I think that most women have a problem with their mom's. It was only after mine died, that I realized how much I missed her and how she was right about so many things!! Along with empathy, one needs patience!!