empathy

When I was in seminary I decided to stretch myself a little and take an elective course on pastoral listening. It was an intensive study of our own baggage and how that baggage affects the way we listen to one another. The real work in the course was being videotaped while we offered pastoral care to another classmate who was pretending to be a person in crisis. This role-play exercise was challenging, as the class watched on, as the camera rolled, the person in front of you declared, “I was abused” or “I am thinking of hurting myself” or “I believe I am an alcoholic.” As I sat there I was conscious of my body language, my tone of voice, and the words I was using. The technique we had learned (it was 1990) was called “reflective listening” which meant I was saying, “I hear you saying” a lot. A lot.

This pastoral listening technique involved listening carefully to the person in front of you and then parroting back to the other so s/he may hear themselves. The theory behind this approach is that a person in crisis is often unable to hear themselves and that they possess the wisdom necessary to solve their own challenges. By helping people to hear themselves you are helping the other to be in touch with their own solutions. External suggestions, ones that come out of the blue, pushed on the other by the listener, are often the least effective means to being with the person in crisis.

The trouble I had with this technique was how mechanical it was. I found the expression “what I hear you saying is…” robotic. Still it was a corrective to the normal itch to launch into advice, advice that could be more about the listener than the person in crisis. I also worried about how this approach might compromise the authenticity of the listener. One thing people in crisis can smell a mile away is a phoney, and using jargon and pet phrases can make a listener sound like s/he is going through the motions. Having been in crisis sometimes myself I can say that the persons who didn’t always say the right things, who offered some bad advice but who seemed genuinely interested were much preferred to the ones who were “correct” in everything they said but seemed more into the technique than my own well-being.

I’ve never mastered the “tone” of pastoral care, my voice is never sweet or warm, though I would never call myself cold. I think I offer pastoral care like someone who is a skilled interviewer, like Peter Mansbridge when he talked recently with Gord Downie. Peter was warm but not like the counsellors I know, it was obvious there was a “relational” quality to the Mansbridge-Downie conversation. There was no “I hear you saying”, rather there was more “where does the kissing come from?”

Yesterday afternoon I came across this video of a public reading at my all-time favorite bookstore, Politics and Prose.

The author Roman Krznaric confronted his own lack of compassion which he believes resulted from the death of his mother when he was 10 years old. Krznaric is no more “touchie-feelie” than I am, and he disputes how effective that tone is in becoming more empathetic. He would say that using a warm tone and reflective listening is better than not but it fails to address what he believes is the central challenge of being more empathetic, namely putting yourself in the shoes of the other. If the listener is warm and using the right language but fails to truly understand anyone but her/his own demographic, people who think/live/vote as s/he does then the ability to truly understand is severely compromised. Krznaric says that the single most effective way to become more empathetic is to listen to, have conversations with, and understand better, people different than yourself.

The other day I was thinking to myself what it is that truly bugs me when I am listening to a public presentation. Is it language I wouldn’t use? No. Is it a provocative tone? No. And then it hit me, what truly sets my teeth to grind is when the presenter has only considered the views of people from within her/his own social network. Such a limitation is so arrogant to me, it betrays a belief that there is no need to listen to anyone apart from one’s own community and completely cuts one off from wisdom that dwells in the hearts of people we seldom meet.

Knowing how others think and feel, getting a sense of another perspective, is one way to truly understand the one who sits in front of you. And that genuine interest is one of the most underrated qualities of good listener.