Recently, someone said something to me that cast doubt on my ability as a therapist.
This person said, “It’s not that hard to help someone feel understood. With good eye contact, attentive listening sprinkled with some ‘uh huhs’ and head nods, plus some message of ‘I am with you’ or ‘I hear you’ will often do the trick…”
This made me recall some 18 years ago when I heard a psychiatrist teaching a course on empathy. He literally said the following to a packed auditorium, “if you don’t have empathy (for your client), fake it.”
I can’t disagree more with this sentiment. Maybe I’m one to overthink things, but I think it is more much difficult to help someone feel understood than simple to “understand” someone in our heads.
In today’s post, I’d re-think out loud the distinction between between “understanding” and “feeling understood.”
Beyond “Clinical” Understanding
Understanding is not an individual sport. It is a relational exercise.
I think helping someone feel understood is much more difficult than the cognitive exercise of understanding because “feeling understood” steps in the relational realm of doubt and uncertainty.
Therapist Dan Hughs says that empathy isn’t empathy until it is felt as empathy by the other person.
Try helping your child feel understood when she is throwing a fit of tantrum. We “understand” the situation, but to begin with helping her feel understood, is one that requires a softening of our intent (e.g. putting aside the notion of “she must not be disrespectful.”) and finding the words to help the child feel like the adult “gets” her on what’s going on inside.
Last year, I recently saw the following “daily story” entry. from a year’s past.
#57. Communicating Empathy is Hard…
My 5 year-old daughter presents a fragment of a deep lesson that I need to learn.
“Papa, I know you are tired. I’m also very tired from school… we did so many things today… sports, dancing, singing, writing alphabets…”
She’s saying exactly what I said to her before. “Sweetheart, I know you are tired. I’m also very tired from work… I had so many things to attend to today and run around…” Her mimicry tells me how un-empathic I’ve been with her, how self-absorbed my attempts to relate and communicate understanding. Her words gave me a mirroring of the effect of my words.
In my attempts to communicate empathy, I need to focus less about me, and more about the effects on the other person. Remember, a magician is the only one in the room who doesn’t see “the magic” while everyone else experiences the gift of awe.
The very few times I managed to communicate a deep sense of understanding, I see a sigh of relief in my daughter, a softening, and often, tears come along. Like the time when she and her younger sister had a tiff and we immediately chastised her. She broke into tears. Only when I put on the brakes and attempted to speak the unspokens within her “You must feel that it’s so unfair that you get scolded and not your little sister… plus, you were only trying to do what you think is right…” No more need to fight, to stand stubborn, or to “resist.”
Some months ago, I stumbled on a letter my father wrote to me when I was perhaps 13 or 14. I was smiling at it because all it conveyed was about how important I must have a direction in my life, and that I should read in order to improve my English. Granted, I was not at all interested in books. The joke is that now I’ve become a voracious reader and perpetual amateur writer—not because of my father’s recommendation, but perhaps due to a hyper-compensation from being in an environment like Singapore that overemphasised on performing, which impeded any spirit of deep learning in the past. (Listen to this Frontiers podcast episode #5 When Performing Impedes Learning).
Only on hindsight that I can see my father’s deep attempts to communicate with me. You must understand, as far as I know, this is not the norm for a Chinese father to pen a letter to their children. But, admittedly, despite his best attempts, I recalled how much I didn’t feel understood. But God knows he tries!
When we travel in the land of relational doubt and uncertainty, we need to start with the intent of sincerely asking,
“Help me understand, help me see what you see, help me appreciate what you’ve gone through.”
Philosopher and theologian John Dunne sees empathy as an act of “passing over”, in which we enter into the feelings, imaginings, and thoughts of others through a particular kind of empathic conjecture: “Passing over is never total but is always partial and incomplete. And there is an equal and opposite process of coming back to oneself (emphasis mine).”
Seek to be Corrected, Not Correct.
There is another important point to make. It isn’t really about “getting it right” when we are trying to empathise with someone. Rather, it is the willingness to “pass over,” make an attempt to reach the heart of the other, AND, willing to be wrong. When we are wrong, we can be corrected and calibrated.
Empathy is the courage to leave your self, but not to lose yourself. And helping someone feel understood seems to inhabit a different space from mere knowing or understanding. The Buddhist female archetype Kuan Yi, the goddess of compassion, represents this well. “She who perceives the cries of the world.”
This is why I believes therapists need direct training on helping someone feel understood. Ironically, this is one area that is sorely lacking in our higher education —heck, even in all kinds of professional development (PD/CPE) workshops. We not only conflat content knowledge with process and relational knowledge, but we have this magical belief that by oxymosis, simply learning more about a subject can lead to better skills in relating with another human.
The evidence converge with what we intuitively know, that empathic ability truly does matters (once again, not just the ability to understand, but to help the other feel understood). A study in 2007 by Baldwin, Wampold and Imel, was able to untangle the alliance-outcome correlation, and what they found was that a staggering 97% of the differences in therapist outcomes was explained by therapist’s alliance ability! One should note that in the social sciences, it is rare that you get one factor such a huge fraction of the variance.
Helping someone feel undestood is difficult. “Easy listening” only exists on the radio. As Zen Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax points out, while you can’t teach someone to be compassionate, you can teach them the processes that lead to compassion.
Finally, there is a prerequisite to such an empathic endeavor. It is not to think less of yourself, but the willingness to think of yourself less.  As such, any training attempts in this space must help therapists search outside of themselves.
DO YOU HAVE SUCH AN ENVIRONMENT DIRECTLY TARGETED TO PRACTICE HELPING SOMEONE FEEL UNDERSTOOD?
IF SO, HOW DOES THAT LEARNING ENVIRONMENT LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
IF NOT, WHAT DO YOU SENSE YOU NEED TO DO TO BE DIRECTLY SHARPENING YOUR EMPATHIC ABILITY?
Let us know in the comments below.
 I try my best to capture stories on a not-so daily basis. Makes me attend to my life with a sharper acuity. For this I have to thank Matt Dicks. Matt calls this “homework for life.”
 As far as as I know, this is attributed to C.S. Lewis definition of humility.
image by Matthew Kosloski