Day 21

Not sure why my absence has been so long.  I find that periodically I go into a reclusive space when it comes to creative thought…as if the neurons in my brain simply have to rest, realign and begin a new series of connections.

I’ve learned simply to lean into this space rather than fight it.  I used to resist these periods of inadvertent quiet…but I am now aware that I somehow seem to instinctively know when it’s time…to take time…to BE in…whatever life brings and in whatever way, shape or form it reveals itself.

This week I’ve been in Paris, France attending the Ashoka Changemakers Summit.  (  I am not able yet, to process all that I have gained here. It will take weeks to reveal the opportunities that have arisen due to my attendance.

I do know that I have met some of the most amazing people–some of the most amazing empathetic people on the planet.

Empathy has been a hot topic at the summit.  Typically considered a soft skill and not necessarily essential to leadership at least in the traditional sense, Bill Drayton, Founder of Ashoka has uncovered a number of thematic connections between all of those folks who are social entrepreneurs.  Empathy has been and continues to be at the top of that list.

Empathy is one of those thingsthings because I’m not sure precisely what to call it…that I’ve taken for granted.  I was raised in a very empathetic home.  My family members are empathetic.  My children are empathetic and most everyone…heck EVERYONE…I work with is empathetic.  I’ve naturally, based on my own experiences, assumed that most people would understand why empathy is essential to being human…a kind of like “duh” sort of thing.  A clear and VERY obvious outcome of Girls on the Run is the ability of every girl and coach to give and receive within an empathetic context.

In my mind, without empathy we lack the ability to deeply connect with another living creature. Empathy affords us the experience of being one, in experience with another…putting aside our own ego and the need to be right…and being with the emotions of another. It doesn’t mean fixing them, making the emotions go away or enabling the individual.  To me it simply means allowing us to be with their emotions without interference from me.

All week I’ve been engaged in numerous dialogues about what brings about empathy.  Mary Gordon, a leading researcher in the field and Founder of Roots of Empathy (www.Rootsofempathy) emphatically believes that we cannot teach empathy, but must provide the opportunity for it to be experienced.  I agree.  Saying to someone, “Hey there Mister. Be Empathetic, will ya?”  Well…that tactic isn’t going to work; BUT, providing an environment and the conditions to create space where empathy can thrive, is possible.

So here’s my request to you. What are the necessary conditions for empathy to thrive?

Of course, the one that comes first to MY mind is safety…both physical and emotional safety.  We have to feel safe to share our full selves with another before empathy can enter the relationship.

I also believe that being vulnerable…creates an empathetic bridge between two people.  In essence…somebody’s gotta go first.  If I open myself to you and reveal my authentic self in some form or fashion, you will feel safe and free to follow.

Trust is in there somewhere, too.

I’m currently serving on the Ashoka Empathy Team and am interested to hear from you…what other components must be present…components at the very primal level…in order for empathy to thrive.

Join the conversation, will ya?  I could definitely use your input!  If you are involved with Girls on the Run, consider specific methods we use to create that space and/or go for the more general.  Let’s see what kind of Empathy Space we can come up with!  (Post here OR post on my Facebook page so we can generally get a sense of that space in a communal fashion.)

15 thoughts on “Day 21

  1. Empathy…wow, that’s got me pondering. At the risk of sounding too cliche, when I think of empathy in myself and the people in my life, including the GOTR folks, we all have a desire, ability, need to be connected to others. I don’t know if it was something that I learned along the way but I do know that I have felt that need for connection since I was a child. It has nothing to do with a need to be with people. It’s more a need to understand people. It’s probably the driving force behind my ability to be empathetic.

  2. As Blessed Mother Teresa pointed out with her words and actions, a requirement for empathy is shared suffering. “Suffering”, in Mother Teresa’s view, is not something to be avoided or accepted in a stoic manner, but something to be sought out with a gladness of spirit. Whether the shared suffering is physical, mental, emotional, financial, or spiritual– it is all purposeful because it is critical to letting you empathize.

    This is why when Missionaries of Charity are offered hospitality, they refuse. Mother Teresa said, “The poor in their hovels and slums are seldom offered anything, so out of respect and empathy for them, we, too, always refuse.”

    One could be on a perfect flight with a hundred other passengers and not develop much empathy for or with them. Let those same hundred passengers share in an emergency landing on the Hudson… instant empathy.

    Shared “suffering” is a great environment in which to experience empathy.

    1. I fully agree in shared suffering. I’m finding that the more pain I have gone through in life the easier it is to empathize with another. Others that have not gone through a specific case of pain cannot really relate. They can try, but cannot deeply feel.

  3. Perhaps this is why Girls on the Run works. I say this both humorously and not so. For many girls running a 5k can include suffering…and sharing that journey with another provides an immediate connection. On the other hand, the joys of crossing the finish line are shared as well.

    Robert this has been incredibly helpful.

  4. I am sure that is a big part of it. This idea that you bond with someone through shared endurance (suffering) is ancient. It is the absolute foundation of the military experience, where people from every background and walk of life come together, and in a few months, find themselves bonded with others in a unique, non-judgemental way that is so powerful it routinely causes members to shed tears for folks they didn’t even know 15 weeks prior.
    You are right that running a 5k is a BIG, hard endeavour for many, but the joy comes from the shared experience that at the end causes everyone to realize, “I’m your sister/brother and we are all in this together”.

  5. Empathy to me is sharing an experience with someone, not really helping them through it but “being” there “with” them. This means you have to be completely honest with yourself and what you bring to the table, just “being” with someone emotionally leaves you completely vulnerable and you have to be ready for that! If you are then it is an amazing experience, too often though we get uncomfortable in those situations and we try to “fix” it to deflect that vulnerability. GOTR teaches girls that we all bring strengths and struggles to the table, we need to celebrate the strengths and utilize our resources (GOTR, Church Youth Groups, athletic teams, true friends, parents and teachers) to get through the struggles. Wow imagine the power and impact GOTR brings to our society, teaching all of these young women to be empathetic, strong in their sense of self, and to be true authentic individuals!!

  6. I enjoyed reading these posts and agree with everything that has been said. On the fip side I can think of many obstacles that keep young people from being empathetic. These include but are not limited to poor parenting, society’s “me first” attitude, and the hurriedness of life that doesn’t allow the time to reflect on others around them.
    This is why Girls on the Run works on sooo many levels. We can not fix poor parenting or society. We can, through the curriculum and mentoring relationships, model empathy. We can discuss what it means. We can point it out when we see it happening on our teams. We can encourage the girls “to be quiet (or quiet the world) and listen” for opportunities to be empathetic. The community project is often built around the feeling of empathy and wanting to connect with someone else’s struggles and act on the need to feel to connected.
    As the curriculum gets written this wording needs to be intentional. So glad I took the time visit this blog today :).

  7. I think safety is crucial. When people feel safe to FEELand EXPRESS… they share that with others. Emapthy is also learned by example. When children experience empathy….when they see others express it…it becomes a part of them. Children learn from experiences…both good and bad. Seeing empathy modeled for them and with them on a regular basis makes it part of the fiber of their being. It adds to their toolbox of life…it is something they will draw on as they grow. It is something that they will build on and get better at as they age.

    I see this with my Girls on the Run. I coach them in 3rd grade and teach them in 5th grade. I am amazed at the skills that the girls lean on that were learned in a season on GOTR.

  8. Love this thread of conversation! While empathy itself may not be taught with just words, the language of empathy can be. Articulating and describing with language while performing the action engrains the total concept while providing valuable skills. Sometimes it is the language that comes first. When we make a direct effort to be empathetic and use language to restate and clarify what another is saying or feeling, greater understanding/empathy may ensue. That in combination with the powerful lesson in Girls on the Run can’t help but result in a more empathetic girl and/or Coach.

  9. Thank you so very much for this post! Trust and safety are definitely key ingredients to an empathic environment. I find it helpful, too, to remain in a place of curiosity about the other person: What is going on with them from their perspective?

    Some things i’ve found blocking empathy are diagnosing or judging a person (or what they are telling me), denying responsibility, thinking about what they might deserve (or not), and making demands. None of that arises if i can stay curious.

    A tool that i am finding tremendously helpful in practicing empathy is “Nonviolent Communication” developed by Marshall Rosenberg and expanded upon by many, many people. I have found that it can help create a framework of trust, safety, and curiosity.

  10. From one empathic person to another, I just have truly enjoyed reading this blog and all the threads long with it. Thank you for going there, exploring this topic and taking the leap. To me, empathy is about connecting with individuals–on a deeper and most sincere level and it requires trust and vulnerability to do so. Thank you so much for sharing.

  11. So great! I bet they loved having you and your huanbsd as their coaches And how exciting that you’ll do a half together! I’ve been training with my boyfriend for a half (he wasn’t a runner before) and it’s been SO fun. It’s so great to reach goals together and lean on each other. Have fun!!!

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