EMPATHY DIFFUSES HOSTILITY

Excerpt From Relationships That Work: The Power Of Conscious Living
– By David B. Wolf

In my communication seminars I am often asked about diffusing hostility. An empathic response is the most powerful means for diffusing aggressiveness. In the mid-nineties I worked as a children and family counselor for the State of Florida Department of Foster Care. On one occasion an enraged father stormed into my office. “How could you tell the judge to keep my kid in foster care!?” Many responses were available to me. I could have yelled back, perhaps referring to his continued substance abuse or his irresponsibility in fulfilling his performance agreement. This would have likely escalated his fury. Or I could have calmly explained to him what he could do to get his child returned, which was the outcome that both of us desired. I began with empathy, matching his intensity. “I know you are furious with me. You’re upset that I recommended to the judge to keep your child in foster care for another three months.” He continued his

tirade, and I continued my attempts at showing my understanding of what he expressed. I would not say that at any point in this conversation did this person develop a liking for me. However, after a few minutes he did sense that I was not his enemy, and that I cared about him and his son. His anger diffused through empathic listening and we were able to have a civilized and productive dialogue, during which I did share with him information about what he could do to accelerate the process of his child’s return. Once he knew that I cared, he began to care what I knew.

My wife and I once attended a lecture on Vedic spirituality, the theme of which was transferring consciousness from ahankara to atman. Ahankara refers to our false, materially based identifications, such as “I am white,” “I am fifty-two years old,” or “I am Peruvian.” Atman refers to identification with our true spiritual identity. On the ride home my wife shared an exchange she had had that day with a doctor, in her capacity as a nurse who inserts intravenous lines. The doctor had ordered a line inserted in a patient although Miriam, noticing various signs and symptoms indicating that it would not be medically advisable to do so, decided not to.

Doctor: I ordered the line put in!

Miriam: I see you’re very upset because I didn’t put in the line.

Doctor: Who the hell do you think you are!? I gave my orders and it’s not done!

Miriam: I know you’re really angry with me because I didn’t follow your orders about this.

Doctor: Yeah, that’s right. I’ve got so much to do and I wrote the instructions. I made it clear!

Miriam: I know you’re very pressured, under so much strain, and it’s so annoying for you that I didn’t put in the line. It’s extra anxiety—just what you didn’t need today.

Doctor:

That’s right. How come you didn’t put in the line?

Miriam explained her reasons and they engaged in calm, rational dialogue about the best course of action for the patient. After describing this interaction to me, Miriam said of the doctor, “He went from ahankara to atman.”

A particularly challenging occasion for reflective listening arises when acrimony is directed toward us by persons with whom we are in a close relationship. A student once wrote the following to me: “One area that I find is very relevant for workshop participants …is the difficulty of doing empathic listening when a spouse or person very close to us is saying something that we totally disagree with. I once made great sacrifices for my wife and then she told me she didn’t like what I did and her reasons were totally uninformed. At that point I couldn’t imagine doing empathic listening. I was so upset I just screamed. It’s one of the most needed and most challenging times to do empathic listening.”

I replied: “I hear your challenge and frustration. It is relatively easy to empathize and reflect when the hostility, anger and resentment are directed toward some third party. When it’s directed toward us it is especially challenging to be sattvic, non-reactive, empathic and compassionate. It is particularly difficult in those instances, and also especially important. When we are able to notice our anger, pain or fear without giving our power to them, and to instead sincerely endeavor to understand the other person, before expressing what we want to say, we create the climate in these close and intimate relationships that we truly desire.”

At the start of the second day of a five-day seminar, a woman who was attending shared her experience from the previous night, after the first day of the seminar when we had covered empathic listening. “My son was in the bath and wanted to play with a particular bottle of liquid soap. I knew this soap would hurt his eyes and wouldn’t allow it. In the past this sort of scene would lead to an escalation of anger, affecting us, and the household, for at least a full day if not longer. ‘No, you can’t have it!’ ‘I want it!’ ‘I said no! Put it down!’ Instead I thought I’ll use the skills we learned that day in the workshop. ‘You’re really angry at mommy for not letting you play with that soap!’ ‘Yes, I want it!’ ‘I know you really wish you could have that bottle, and you’re mad at me because I won’t let you.’ ‘That’s right. I am.’ I couldn’t believe it. After about a minute the episode was over. His anger was gone, and we enjoyed each other’s company.”

Studies in labor-management discussions demonstrate that it takes half the time to achieve conflict resolution when all parties agree to accurately repeat what the previous speaker has said before responding. To do this requires sattvic consciousness, where we are attentive and sufficiently patient to mirror the other person’s statement, before saying our piece. Especially when we are in conflict with the other party, it requires substantial non-attachment to utilize reflective empathy and avoid roadblocks. Frequently in workshops I hear, “But David, using these techniques takes much longer.” My response is, “Yes, maybe it does. In the short run.” Sattvic communication may take longer up front. However, in the long run it avoids the anxieties and problems created by roadblock-filled tamasic and rajasic communication. For instance, we might spend more time in mirroring and empathic listening so that we understand an employee; his satisfaction though results in a more pleasant work environment where people want to stay. This in turn is likely to lead to higher efficiency and an increase in productivity.

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