One of the biggest gifts we can give someone is to truly see them. To truly see someone means to understand the meaning behind what they are saying. It means understanding not just the words but going much deeper and saying what’s not being said. As group facilitators, part of our job is to make the covert overt or to say what’s not being said.
Someone said to me recently, “Yes, I understand empathy but at some point we just have to be real. And we have to tell them what the consequences are and lay it out”. And I realized a few things in that conversation. The first was that the person felt that being empathic was being fake, and that is simply not the case. The other is that there is confusion between understanding why someone may have done something and saying that it’s okay. Just because I understand why you may have done something, does not mean it is ok. I still get to reinforce the consequences or boundaries. Chris Trotter talks about this in working with involuntary clients where he reinforces the importance of boundaries and clarifying what’s negotiable and what is non-negotiable. Brene Brown talks a lot about boundaries and empathy as well (for more information, google her) and she defines boundaries as what’s okay and what’s not okay. It’s such a simple yet profound definition of boundaries, though what it means is that I need to be able to catch that’s something is not okay ether in the moment or before it happens, and that takes a high level of self-awareness.
Empathy is also about the willingness to listen while allowing my mind to be changed by what I am hearing. Empathy is the starting point for developing a helping relationship, the critical foundation for positively influencing behavior change. This helpful working alliance contains ingredients that are necessary to build intrinsic motivation for change: respect, trust, honesty and concern. My evaluation of what a client has done is, in many ways, beside the point. What is pertinent here is that I believe he is worth my time, attention and effort as a unique individual. He may have done horrendous things, and may currently be sitting in front of me looking dejected and worthless. He may not currently believe he has any significance or value. It is for me to hold the belief that he does, to hold the possibility that given the right support and circumstances, he will move toward health and change. Empathy is the willingness to suspend my own assumptions and judgments about what is going on and enter into the client’s world view while still maintaining boundaries and structure and clarifying what is ok and what is not ok.