By Marina Jurjevic, Interaction Practitioner
Each of us has a unique personality. That makes us different, but equally we all have lots in common and are connected in so many ways. We live in our own realities that are defined by our senses and our own experiences. But we are social beings and it is of utmost importance to our personal development to experience other people’s realities. Our ability to communicate and understand our and other peoples’ emotional state is a key to maintaining our relationships. When we observe someone experiencing joy or sadness, we are experiencing a similar sensation to a certain extent. Being empathetic means thinking further beyond ourselves and our own concerns. It shows our ability to put ourselves in another person’s position to feel what they are experiencing.
Empathy appears to have its origin in the German word ‘Einfulung’ which literally means ‘feeling within’. Psychologist Tichener coined the term ‘empathy’ from two Greek roots, em and pathos (feeling into). There has been much confusion and debate around the precise meaning of empathy, particularly in the clinical context, conceptualised as a behaviour, a personality dimension, or as an experienced emotion. (Stewart W Mercer and William J Reynolds(October 2002) Empathy and quality of care. British Journal of General Practice, Quality Supplement). It is a concept whose meaning continues to evolve. We can look at empathy as the power of understanding others, imaginatively entering their feelings. It is a fundamental human attribute, without which society cannot function. (Bazalgette Peter (2017) The empathy instinct, how to create a more civil society. Publisher:John Murray).
Sympathy and empathy are sometimes confused. Sympathy is about the acknowledging of a certain situation, while empathy is when we share and understand what other people are going through. Empathy is about connecting with the person, feeling and understanding. Therefore, it is a conscious choice – caring about the wellbeing of somebody, but personally knowing what the person may feel/experience. As Interaction Practitioners in Us in a Bus we try to tune into our communication partner’s feeling, what it must be like to experience such feeling. This effort helps the person to stay with their feelings and explore them in the safety of a caring relationship. It is one of those skills that, when present, humanises people and their relationships…the capacity to read, and maybe connect with other peoples minds and their interior experience. (David Howe (2013) Empathy What it is and why it matters. Palgrave Macmillan, Bassingstoke)
Empathy builds trust and stronger relationships.
We focus on a person’s state of being, how they are feeling, by genuinely caring about their wellbeing.
We listen actively. We don’t form our response before listening to the person. We slow down and take time to think. We consider the person profoundly to better understand what they intended, trying to understand their emotional state and deeper motivations for their actions. Listening helps expand and form our own experience.
Learning more about other people’s experiencesis the key element to see the world through someone else’s eyes. It is also important to open up about our own feelings.
We don’t judgethe person by their behaviour. They are entitled to our respect however they are acting.
Empathy is in a way a vulnerable choice too, because in order to deeply connect with the other person, we need to connect with something in ourselves that knows that feeling. If someone has shared with us something painful, we are aware that rarely just verbal response can make something better. What makes something better is a true connectionand this is what we endeavour with the people we support – to share our mutual humanity through relationship based on equality, trust, respect and understanding.
An example of empathetic response from our practice:
My colleague and I had a very special session with Emily recently – I still think about it. When we arrived at her home, we found out from the manager that Emily had had a big seizure in the morning and that she was refusing food and drink. We also noticed that she seemed very tired and her chin was shaking involuntary. That was not usual.
Emily is a lady who is able to say her ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and clearly demonstrates her choices through her actions. We started our interaction by gentle, quiet singing of our ‘Hello’ song. Emily was watching us, focusing on each of us. She is not lady who holds hands for long; usually it is a brief handshake for goodbye. We knew that this session would be quite different as we needed to respond to the different needs that Emily was experiencing on that day. As her chin was continuously shaking, we asked her if we could notice her chin by gently touching her jaw? As Emily didn`t say `No` we slowly approached her jaw and applied a gentle pressure. She allowed this but she took our hand away quite quickly. We asked again and slowly approached her jaw. Again, after a brief time, Emily took our hand away. She was completely in control of the situation. We saw that this didn`t seem to help so we asked Emily if we could gently touch her chin. Emily was looking at us without saying `No` so we repeated the same process, but this time with her chin, always watching her facial expression and allowing time for her to express her choice, whether by saying `No` or through her gestures. This time Emily allowed a couple of seconds before she removed our hand from her chin, maintaining constant eye contact with us. We continued to gently notice her chin and Emily allowed more and more time before she removed our hand. I told her a story about my Dad whose arm is shaking like her chin and that he feels very tired as he can`t stop his hand shaking. We said that we understand how she might be feeling, and that she might be very tired? Emily then put her hand on the hand I offered her and left it there for the rest of session. Soon her chin stopped shaking! We celebrated that special time together. We used language as we think she understands a lot, but equally even if she didn`t, we felt she could feel our deep emotions through the tone of our voices and actions, which connected us so profoundly.
In this session the priority was empathy and the power of understanding – being in her `shoes`. This is of course present in each of our sessions, but in sessions like this we are more focused on the emotional than on the interactive side of communication. Time passed so quickly and we needed to bring our session to an end. As soon as we mentioned a `Good Bye` song Emily’s chin started to shake again. We were very moved with her trust in us and the power of such deep connection that brings us to a higher level of mutual understanding.
Interestingly the more we understand about the sense of interoception the more we understand the influence it has on our ability to understand and our ability to empathise. Look out for an article on interoception here soon.