A reader sent me this question:
How do you empathize with someone who is very wrong?
My reader had been in a situation where her personal space was invaded – painfully.
We’ve probably all experienced something like this: we’re standing innocently on line at the supermarket and the person behind us shoves their shopping cart into us.
More unusually, not just once: when we turn and glare at them, they do it deliberately a second time, and then leave the cart within a hairsbreadth of our backside.
When you’re being inconvenienced by some never-to-be-seen-again stranger’s flat-out rudeness, can there possibly be any benefit to empathy?
Isn’t it weird, uncomfortable, and perhaps even doormat-like to empathize with someone who is so clearly wrong?
Finally, and more to the point of this reader’s question, how can you find empathy for someone who’s totally out of line?
Is there any benefit to empathy in this situation?
There are certainly times when empathy is a waste of your valuable energy and effort. Trying to empathize with narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths isn’t worth it. They’re far more skilled at empathy than you are, and they’ll use your efforts against you – and win. (There’s a dark side to empathy, and this is it.)
But most people you meet don’t fall into those categories.
Here’s the thing: my reader wanted the other person’s behavior to change. She wanted them to stop shoving their cart into her.
The fastest, least conflict-arousing way to do this is through empathy. So, yes, empathy is definitely worthwhile.
Isn’t it weird, uncomfortable, or even doormat-like, to show empathy in this situation?
Unusual, yes. Weird? If so, only in a good way.
Uncomfortable? Absolutely. Mostly what we want to do is shove the cart right back at them!
Doormat-like? Ah! This is one reason why it feels so uncomfortable. We’re taught to react defensively, especially when our personal space is invaded (and that can be literal space, as in my reader’s situation, or emotional space, as in when someone yells at you or calls you names). From our perspective, we are one billion percent, incontrovertibly, inarguably certain that we’re right and they’re wrong.
And from childhood we’re taught that “taking it” is for weaklings and cowards. Instead, we’re supposed to “stand up for ourselves.”
Yet I firmly believe that the people who are able to show empathy even under challenging circumstances are the strongest, most courageous people I know.
And you’re only a doormat if you have no boundaries and let people walk all over you.
Having empathy does not mean having no boundaries, and it does not mean allowing anyone to walk on you.
Quite the contrary: empathy is the fastest, least-confrontational, and therefore least-frustrating (and most likely to succeed) way to change someone’s behavior toward you.
So how do you find empathy for someone who’s wrong?
There you are, in physical and/or emotional pain from someone’s attack, completely convinced that they’re wrong and you’re right, and somehow you need to reach inside yourself and find empathy for them. Yikes!
Step One: take three deep breaths
When we’re in an emotionally-charged situation, the “fight – freeze – flight” reaction kicks in, the body tenses up, and the breath becomes rapid and shallow.
Oh, yes, and the mind starts queuing up all kinds of snappy, snarky retorts for you to fire off.
Three deep breaths calms the brain, eases the tension, and gives you time to think before you speak.
Step Two: ask yourself …
Why would a reasonable person do this?
I know. Their behavior isn’t reasonable – from your perspective. But try to answer the question anyway.
You can also try wondering, with as much curiosity as possible, what they might be feeling.
Step Three: speak from this new understanding
“Isn’t this line awful?!”
Or even, “Oh, I’m sorry – I’m not moving as fast as the line is, am I?” (assuming there’s a gap between you and the person ahead of you)
Is it hard? You bet. When we’ve been attacked or offended, it’s incredibly hard to speak and act from this place of empathy for the person we see as the culprit.
And please be careful! These comments must come from a place of true empathy, not from a place of “I don’t freaking believe you just freaking did that!” The latter will come across in your tone, and it will only escalate the situation. If you can’t keep from being snarky, you’re better off saying nothing at all.
Why it works
It’s startlingly disarming. The person undoubtedly expects a belligerent, angry reaction … and instead they get a thoughtful, empathetic response.
It makes them view their behavior in a very different light.
In many cases, they apologize. And even if they don’t, they certainly lighten up and almost inevitably stop whatever they’re doing.
Which, after all, is what you want.
Why it’s worth it
It’s admittedly really hard to reach down into yourself and find – and then display – empathy for someone in this sort of situation.
If nothing else, consider it a great opportunity to practice for a time when your empathetic skills will be called upon to help you through a truly serious situation – a tough business negotiation, a fraught moment with your spouse or partner, a crisis point with your teenager, and so on.
Plus, you’ll feel a whole lot better. Seriously. I’ve seen it over and over again when clients have wanted to rip someone’s head off, yet they allow me to coach them through a more empathetic response. Almost invariably I get a call or email afterwards saying something along the lines of, “Wow! That went so much better than I expected!” It’s a real confidence booster.
Sometimes they even make friends with the other person – as unlikely as that sounds, and as impossible as it might have seemed to them beforehand.