The Power of Empathy – There is an idea that if we argue, shame, cajole, and convince, we can persuade others to agree with us, amend their ways, and ultimately change the world. We think that the louder we are, the more sound our argument, the stronger our persuasion, the more effective we will be.
This idea reminds me of Aesop’s fable where the Sun and Wind argued about who was stronger. While arguing, the Sun and the wind noticed a gentleman wearing a cloak, and they agreed to a contest. Whoever could remove the gentleman’s cloak would be considered the strongest.
The wind went first. With each blast of wind, the gentleman gripped tighter and wrapped his cloak closer. The wind blustered on for some time, but the gentleman would not release his hold no matter what technique the wind tried. Admitting defeat, the wind gave up, frustrated and angry at his impotence.
The Sun took its turn and began to shine. At first, it was gentle warming beams, but as the gentleman travelled, he became warmer and warmer. The gentleman started to wipe the sweat away from his brow, then he removed his hat and eventually removed his cloak, sat down in the shade to recover, and escaped the heat.
I heard this story while watching Saturday morning cartoons in Saskatoon in the late 70s. As a young child, that story made an impression on me, but it has taken a long time to understand it in a fuller sense. Multiple versions, interpretations, and applications of this fable can be traced back to ancient Greece. The morals range from ‘persuasion is better than force’ to ‘mildness achieves more than violence’ to ‘you can’t win with threats.’ For this post, I want to relate this story to something known as ‘the righting reflex.’
The righting reflex is a natural tendency to want to set things right. Imagine your child says, ‘I’m going out to play on the railway tracks.’ You would likely respond in a way that keeps your child safe. Your righting reflex kicked in and did what it was supposed to do. Your righting reflex is a good thing. It means well and wants to help.
We run into trouble with the righting reflex when we give into what Motivational Interviewing calls roadblocks. Roadblocks include:
Roadblocks are not good listening. They cause distraction, get in the way of self-reflection, and imply an uneven relationship, however well-intentioned they are.
Why am I telling you this and how can you harness the power of empathy? I’m suggesting that as hard as it is to resist the righting reflex, doing so may help you to connect more deeply with those you love and care about. We each have autonomy and the right to live how we see fit. Autonomy is my right and yours, so why not extend that to others? Using empathy to understand and connect has more impact than arguments and force. I’m suggesting that a kinder, more understanding approach will result in connection instead of disconnection. I’m suggesting we resist the righting reflex and seek to understand each other with genuine empathy.
Empathy is seeking to understand another’s perspective and believing that to do so is a worthwhile endeavour. Empathy is not just a technique that is used on another person to get a desired result. Empathy is a self giving attitude that places value on the other and turns attention away from the self. I’m suggesting we accept Fred Rogers’ invitation to be neighbours despite our ideologies, religion, sexuality, or creed differences. This is the real power of empathy.
Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2012). Motivational Interviewing, Third Edition: Helping People Change. New York: The Guilford Press.