You don’t have to be an extrovert to reveal your empathy

So proud to have a guest post from Empathy Bootcamp participant and HEO board member Dr. Amy D’Andrade

What’s that like for you?

I recently attended HEO’s pilot ‘Empathy Bootcamp.” Having been a part of HEO since its inception, I figured I mostly knew the material that would be covered. I’ve browsed the hundreds of comments and interviews that Kelsey gathered over years of talking to people experiencing different kinds of difficulties. I’ve read drafts of the chapters that will make up the book Kelsey is writing on how to help out friends, colleagues and family when they’re having hard times. I’ve had countless conversations about these issues with Kelsey and others in my life who have witnessed my involvement with the project over several years. So I thought I pretty much had it down: Don’t give advice. Say “I’m sorry.” Listen. Do something. Etc. I wasn’t sure I’d get much more out of the bootcamp, but went to participate in the pilot and give some feedback on the experience.

In my life, I have failed to step up to the plate for others many times in many ways. And while I’m getting a bit better with all this knowledge I’ve gained since becoming involved with HEO, it is also true that I remain a very awkward helper. I am alert now to the fact I have options when others are struggling, that what I do and say can make a difference, and that a small gesture can help in a big way. So I say something, like “I’m sorry,” but often then stand there stiffly, not sure what to do next. Sometimes I try and ask a few questions to let the person know I’m interested and that I care, but it often feels forced and wrong, like I’m grilling them rather than checking in with them. As an introverted person, casual conversation has never been easy for me; when the situation is someone’s hardship, it’s even trickier to know how to connect. But I took away a wonderful gift from the bootcamp – a phrase that even the most awkward person can employ to authentically connect with someone having a hard time.

It was just one of a number of conversation starters that were suggested at the bootcamp, for situations when you really have time to listen. I didn’t really think much about the phrase during the event, but I had a little card with the phrase written on it and I carried it around with me in the following weeks.

I used it when an acquaintance informed me of a challenging living situation involving her ex-husband and her children. She is someone who I like but don’t have a close relationship with. Generally when I ask her a question, attempting in my awkward way to connect, she answers briefly but then the conversation peters out. This time, when she mentioned this circumstance with her children, I said – What’s that like for you? To my amazement, and for the first time I can remember, she responded with openness and at some length, describing what was going on in this situation – what was happening, what was hard about it for her, what was going on for the kids. In this question, unlike the other attempts I’d made, she heard and trusted in my desire to understand and connect, enough that she could reveal more of herself and her life to me than she ever had before. In its utter openness to what may come, I think somehow the phrase makes the listener trust in the speakers’ authentic wish to learn more. In it, there is a complete lack of impending judgment or criticism of whatever the response might be.

Another time I used it, the person with whom I was speaking wasn’t experiencing a hard time. At least it turns out that he wasn’t – I didn’t know that at first. He was taking a long vacation from work, well-earned, but rather than entirely departing the job, he’d kept up some administrative responsibilities that kept him coming in work and engaged with some projects there. I’d had a very similar break the previous year, and like him had remained engaged with a number of projects. I regretted this choice. I found I resented the hours that I was providing service to my employer when I was supposed to be “off” doing my own thing. I felt that as a result, I didn’t accomplish as much of my own work as I’d hoped to while away, and didn’t return as rested and refreshed as I’d hoped that I would. So – my first instinct when he told me his plans was to share my experience and what I’d learned in a very similar situation.

But somehow – I remembered that phrase. So instead of sharing my experience, I asked him – What’s that like for you? And – “I like it!” he said. These were projects that meant a great deal to him, and he hadn’t previously been able to find as much time to devote to them as he wanted to. So he was glad some space had opened up for him to move them forward.

Asking What’s that like for you? leaves the respondent space to go absolutely any direction – from “it’s great” to “it’s terrible.” It’s the most open-ended question I can think of. To use it requires a kind of humility, or at least an understanding that I have no idea what another person’s experience is, and that it may be completely different from what I expect or would feel myself.

I’m not going to become an extrovert, and a handy phrase won’t dispel the awkward feelings arising when I try to reach out to someone struggling with a hard time. But I’m glad to have this phrase in my back pocket. I might be stiff, I might feel shy, but I’m able to communicate my caring in a way that feels authentic to me, and seems to come across that way to the person I’m talking to. That’s a lot, and I’m grateful for it.