Empathy and Vulnerability

Empathy and Vulnerability

Empathy is playing an important role in our wellbeing theme of NOTICING, as we encourage Senior Boys and Girls to try to notice more what the people in their lives are feeling and how they may be showing it.  This in turn, leads to more opportunities to open ourselves up to be the kind of person someone confides in when they are feeling low… after all, sometimes all you need is for someone to ask if you are ok.  This invites the person to talk – and our job then becomes simply to listen.

And listening is such a crucial part of an empathic conversation.

I shared this video recently on The Wellbeing Hive social media, because it is such an insightful way to look at the differences between sympathy and empathy, and how powerful giving and receiving empathy can be in hard times.  It is based on some of the work of vulnerability expert Brene Brown and you can take a look at it here…

Here, we have a little fox feeling low, and a bear showing us the empathic response, being there for the fox and accepting and trying to understand her feelings. And then there’s a goat. The goat doesn’t exactly look uncomfortable – but his actions show he is uncertain with how to act and unwilling to take on board the fox’s feelings (which is exactly what empathy is – being able to step inside the shoes of another).

The goat does a number of things wrong here that we all might do.  Firstly, he tries to distract the fox and change the subject – by offering her a sandwich.  The audience laugh at this point because it seems so unbelievably inappropriate!  But how often do we do this?  Encourage people to move away from their concerns in order to make us feel more comfortable, so we don’t have to find that place within us that understands what they are feeling.  This is what the bear does so well.

The goat also tries to do this by pointing out what the fox DOES have – she does have a marriage, and fertility and another child who IS successful.  And while gratitude is often a beautiful thing and a key part to happiness, the fox’s feelings are totally denied and minimized here.  The goat doesn’t want to hear them – and is almost shaming her for her feelings on separate and sometimes unrelated issues.  We should never shame others for their feelings – especially if we don’t take the time to step into their shoes.

There is another thing NOT in this video that we also often do, that stops us (intentionally or unintentionally) from simply sitting with another person and acknowledging their feelings.  That is COMPARISON.  Its quick and easy to compare one person’s issue to another’s, but in doing so, we fail to listen to and acknowledge either party.  If one person states they are feeling overwhelmed by parenting, it is NOT empathetic to ask them to imagine if they had five children instead of three.  Nor is it kind to hear a friend express exhaustion from a heavy workload and ask them to imagine if they worked in a bigger organization.

Every time we make these comparisons, we negate the feelings presented to us, in much the same way as the goat.  Because here are some truths about that friend:

  • Their feelings are valid – and should be acknowledged
  • You don’t know the entirety of their situation
  • All they probably want is to feel “seen” in the conversation. Instead, you have taken the conversation to someone else instead.

Brene Brown reminds us here that no answer we give can fix the problem – but instead we can focus on connection.  I have been keeping this in mind in my work with students and parents, and in my home life with friends and family.  Feeling connected is the greatest gift we can give to the person who confides in us. Brown’s closing moment suggests simply thanking the person for sharing with you… and here are some other suggestions of things you can say to validate and be there for the person in front of you:

  • That’s so tough. I can’t imagine.
  • That sounds so hard. I am here if you want to talk about it.
  • I know what it’s like to feel frustrated/hurt/rejected/like a failure. Why don’t we keep talking?

If we really want to share the moment with the person, we have to be vulnerable.  We have to be prepared to take their feelings on board.  That is what empathy is.  The true kindness is in carrying the load with them for just a few minutes.

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