When we want to show empathy, most of us have a good feel for the basics.
We can say, “You sound mad,” or “…glad,” or “…frustrated,” depending on what we hear.
Empathy does go a long way to help your relationship. When you help name another person’s experience, it’s very calming. They feel seen, heard, and supported. “Name it to tame it” is Dr. Dan Siegel’s way of reminding us how we can help each other process and manage intense feelings.
But we can create an even deeper level of conversation. We crave wholehearted connection. Yet it gets squeezed out of our high-speed lives.
I want to help more people take the time to reflect, put their thoughts into words, and share them with each other.
There’s a deep part of our personal experience that many of us dismiss, tune out, or devalue instead of embrace and share. I think it leads to a lot of the loneliness — the emotional deprivation — that people feel.
Can we reclaim the art of sitting with ourselves long enough, openly enough, to bring up the things only we can say?
Listening deeply involves two people. It involves one who will listen deeply, and one who will explore their own thoughts and share them deeply.
We don’t teach these skills in our culture. I believe we need to reclaim the value of taking time to explore and share our experiences beneath the anxiety.
I’m thinking of people who are very stressed. We’ve all heard someone talking a mile a minute to blow off steam. They’re up in their heads, in an anxious state. We hear the same story over and over. Some of this is necessary to process an experience.
But often, under this layer of anxiety is a dark, cramped space where our more vulnerable feelings long to open up and breathe. These feelings need space to unfold, so we can recognize them. We need to get to them to feel close.
What therapy does (when it’s good therapy) is create a safe space for people to slow down, get into their bodies, and find ways to express their experiences. Digging below the surface means tolerating the discomfort. Sadly, many of us learn to numb, rather than attune to and explore what’s under our distress.
Being more aware of our inner world takes a desire to feel whatever matters to us under the surface level of pain — whether it’s fear, sadness, or the desire to avoid shame. Listening deeply takes a decision to become more aware. It takes support. It takes an intention and belief that you can focus on more than just the anxious part of your experience.
To move through the anxiety, it takes courage and patience to express the issues you discover beneath the first layer of feelings.
The Thinking Brain Works Fast; The Emotional Brain Needs Time
The thinking brain is quick. But the emotional brain needs many repetitions to learn something. It takes time and experience for us to grasp a subtler emotional experience, such as:
“My partner now gets it — she understands how she hurt me, and truly cares.”
“I’m upset when he’s late coming home from work, not just because it’s hard to manage the kids alone. To me, it means he’s not thinking about me. It hurts to see I don’t matter.”
“My partner is very special to me. I want to touch her in a way that expresses love, not just sexual attraction.”
“I want to feel closer to my partner. I will tune into him, to know about his thoughts, his goals, how he wants to live his life.”
I want to help people go beyond empathy, to deeper connection. We can be very quick to put up our defenses. It takes a lot of effort to change old protective, knee-jerk responses.
Why bother? Because the way to heal these isolating defenses is this: conversation, slow enough to let the thinking brain catch up with the emotional brain. Only this kind of slower, emotionally vulnerable conversation can ease the deep hunger we all feel to be known, respected and loved.
In our ever more hasty, rushed and text-message driven lives, we need to slow down to connect, or we can starve to death emotionally.
Listening deeply requires a quiet space, ample time, and practice. Speaking so the other can hear and understand takes vulnerability and great effort. Connecting deeply takes self-awareness, other-awareness, patience and courage.
Are you up for it?