I want to share some words about…words…and how they can be utilised as a low-stakes access point for being intentional, loving and present when we communicate and connect, and choosing curiosity to practise empathy.
The simple fact is that we are responsible for the words we use. And every single word we use contains energy, which is shared with (and sometimes forced upon) others by:
- how we combine them
- how we inflect them
- how we hold on to them
These factors dictate how much hurt, joy, confusion, and play etc. we share with others — and ourselves — or invite others into.
Everyone could know every word, and yet everyone’s definition of each word would be different. Similar, maybe, but undoubtedly different. This is because our understanding of the word, and our framing of the word in a social sense-in each moment- is shaped by our lived experience (our parent(s)/guardian(s), our teachers, friends, geographical location; cultural upbringing, pretty much every experience and interaction we’ve had).
We aren’t empathic as standard. You have to choose empathy in each moment. Simple, but not easy.
When hearing words like ‘childish’, ‘early’, ‘committed’, ‘maybe’, ‘love’ (though any word will do) our tendency is to assume we know what the other person means because we know what we mean by that word. We create a filter through which we pass the word in order to shape not only our response, but how we hear the word in the first place. The components used for the filter are:
- Our interpretation of the word
- Knowledge we have of the person who said the word
- Examples of previous, similar instances where the speaker used the word
Using this filter, we start telling a different story about what is going on for them in this moment. We use doctored information to shape our response (or defence) and simply how we show up in the conversation. We are doing this with every word, which requires attention and energy; attention and energy we are not using to listen to what the person is saying but to gauge how to fix, protect (the speaker and/or ourselves) or fulfill the role we have established in this relationship. This is not empathy. Empathy is based in curiosity and a willingness to stand in a space of uncertainty; a space of shared discovery. We aren’t empathic as standard. You have to choose empathy in each moment. Simple, but not easy.
“Well, Paul,” I think I may hear you say, “that sounds like the stakes become higher”.
I hear you, dear reader, and before we get into the vulnerability and conscious choice required to choose empathy, I want to acknowledge — and celebrate! — that you have already made one of the most courageous, revolutionary steps one can take simply by wondering if there is another way to communicate with yourself and those you share space with; and then you clicked on this post and have read this far. These are not easy concepts to embrace. They are certainly not the ways we have been taught to engage with or support others, and the reasons behind that are for another post altogether (one including plenty of -isms and -archies). Until then, let’s return to…
Stakes. I have been in enough moments with people to learn that by trying to work out someone’s story without asking for context generates stakes higher than I ever wish to be part of again. I also learned that all the vulnerability crests at once; that moment when lines of understanding get crossed and the story I was constructing collides with the story the speaker was actually telling. Does that resonate with you?
It’s at that point of collision that reciprocal communication is impossible and, instead, becomes about dichotomy (right vs wrong; listening vs not listening; defence vs attack etc.). Those moments felt intense, painful and ended in sacrifice for me. So much so I felt willing to try another way even if that, too, felt scary and uncertain (I’ve come to learn that ‘uncertain’ does not mean ‘in danger’. Uncertainty requires my vulnerability but not my sacrifice; a difference that has, well, made all the difference).
What does practising empathy using low stakes look like? I’m glad you asked. Firstly, empathy requires us to choose curiosity. Curiosity, to me, is about wonder. It’s showing interest in something that may not align with your experience or feelings. So, here’s a hypothetical. You are having a general conversation with someone, and they are speaking (perhaps it’s about the storyline of a book they are currently devouring, or the price of their favourite apples going up; anything where you are not directly included in what the speaker is sharing, but something they have some feelings about).
Speaker “…which is just so annoying.”
You — “I hear you. I don’t want to assume what you mean by using my definition of “annoying”, so could you say some more words about what “annoying” means to you in this moment?”
Or words like that. It may feel strange to say something like that, and that’s ok. That’s normal. You haven’t said anything like that before. This is why we practise in a low stakes environment. You may get a raised eyebrow. The speaker may think about it and change the word they want to use. You just chose empathy, showed up in the present and invited someone to use a word that actually felt more true to them. That’s some magic when you experience that, I promise.
Now, they may misinterpret your question as you telling them they are making no sense, or something like that. Who knows. This is why it is a space that allows for vulnerability. One thing I will affirm should this example — or something similar — occur is that they are not wrong for feeling feelings, nor are you responsible for their response. You showed up with the intention to be present and use empathy. That’s the important truth to hold on to.
One of the most loving things you can do is to want to hear someone’s words the way they want to convey them
Stepping into a conversation with curiosity takes practice. Again, it is not how we have been trained and conditioned to share space with people. So, here is an invitation and reminder to adopt a beginner mindset. You’ve spoken to people before: correct. It also gets to be true that relinquishing the need to know the answer, to know the destination, or to stop someone from feeling hard feelings, is new. A beginner in anything is given low-stakes opportunities to practise something unfamiliar. That means you get to forgive yourself if you slip into familiar patterns. It’s not wrong; it’s just information, and you always get to choose curiosity again. To slightly paraphrase an amazing coach and wise human being — Angie Cole (www.untamingthewild.com):
If doing something is hard, you aren’t failing; it’s hard. And that’s ok.
What I have noticed through practising empathy and curiosity in communication with myself and others is a shift of energy. It is now one of standing side by side with someone, not head to head. We look outwards together. Two different perspectives of the same view, which are both valid and welcome and able to take up as much space as they need without sacrifice.
You do not receive a certificate for “Outstanding Empathy” nor do you ever reach a point where you choose empathy unconsciously, but it is SO worth choosing it consciously when you are able. I promise. It’s a powerful, tender and heart-tingling experience that allows you to be in a moment with someone who wants you to hear their story. It is always your choice to choose vulnerability and curiosity and uncertainty.
Simple, but not easy. And that’s ok.
Much ginger love 🧡