From ‘Ouch!’ to ‘Oh, yes!’ — Empathy at a slower speed

In an earlier post I described the ‘ouch’ moment of empathy. There you are, watching your friend hammering a picture hook into the wall to hang a new mirror, when – ouch! – she hits her thumb with the hammer. Perhaps your response to that experience of instant empathy — your stomach clenching as if it was your own thumb — was less than compassionate. “Huh,” you think, “Typical! I suggested she stand on a chair, but would she? It would have been less trouble to do it myself.”

I am happy to tell you that you don’t need to feel ashamed of the response because there’s another chance for empathy coming right along, and this time you can be that kind, helpful person you know yourself to be really.

This slower, more considered form of empathy often goes under the name of ‘perspective-taking’ because it involves taking the other person’s perspective; standing in their shoes, as it were, and seeing / feeling the world as they do. And perspective-taking lets you think yourself into how it must feel for your friend to have banged her thumb. You have time to look at the red mark, the bruised nail, and consider how that must hurt. You have time to remember when you shut your own thumb in the car door years ago, and how you cried because it hurt so much, and how the nail went black and you thought it might fall off, but it didn’t, the black mark just grew slowly higher up the nail until it got to the top and you could look behind it, and then one day you just cut it off. But, oh yes! It really did hurt.

Now you have thought yourself into a position close to your friend’s and you probably want to help to make her feel better. Now your compassion can leap into action – offer ice to put on it, or, if you’re British, a nice cup of tea to make her feel better.

My favorite way of describing the process of perspective-taking comes from the Russian scholar, Bakhtin. A literal translation from the Russian gives this type of empathy as live entering into; later in his career, it became creative imagining. It is a process of imagination  that takes you into the other person’s world. Very often, we rely on our own experience to do this imagining, finding some similar experience and re-living it, including how it felt at the time.

Empathy as entering into the other person’s experience is intriguing to me, because it is full of hopeful possibilities. It can be influenced by intention or motivation, by a moral commitment or by personal determination. It can adjust responses to more considered action, less cruel or more benevolent.

In the next post, I’ll tell you a story from the ladies’ toilet queue where some perspective-taking and creative imagination would have made for a happier day…

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