“Life Can’t Be THAT Bad!”

Empathy helps us negotiate difficult conversations. As a beginning chaplain on a ward for patients with mental disorders, I encountered a woman who stood, while I sat to talk with her. “I want to die,” she cried. Trying to respond to her despair, I stated, “Life can’t be THAT bad!” Although I can’t recall what she said, I do recall her answering me back strongly. I remember also feeling stymied as to how to respond. Our conversation lasted only briefly. I later talked with my chaplain supervisor about my experience. He put her tears into perspective when he said, “The state just took her children away.”

I Had A Lot To Learn

What a jerk! I thought as a new chaplain I was smart, but in reality, of course, I was just ignorant. I didn’t realize how little understanding I had of how a woman crying might be feeling. Rather than inquire about the meaning of her crying, I immediately interpreted her behavior in terms I could understand. Blind to her sorrow, I had minimized her grief.

Such a blunder is easy to fall into. We see someone in deep distress. But our normal strategies for responding don’t seem appropriate. We therefore feel uncomfortable. This is our anxiety. We don’t really know what to say. We could remain silent. Sometimes that’s the best plan. But our friend looks for your response, too. And sometimes we feel compelled to say something. Usually what we say doesn’t help. Out of my awkwardness, I blundered.

Empathy Helps Difficult Conversations

Empathy helps us negotiate difficult conversations. But it takes hard work to leave our world in order to enter someone else’s frame of reference. This doesn’t come naturally because we’re mostly concerned with ourselves. Therefore, when someone expresses deep emotion (anger, sadness, joy), we tend to retreat behind our natural protective barrier of our own perception. We may  feel pushed, even attacked.

As a result,  we usually interpret other people’s emotions or behavior according to our perception. This experience, one among many that summer, helped me begin to understand how much skill it takes to get me out of my own frame of reference and into another’s. I had many such experiences, along with talks with supervisors – other chaplains and psychiatrists. They were experienced. I had a lot to learn. Such learning is painful: I felt humiliated, ashamed, and helpless. But it was just such experiences that launched me into my career as a pastor and as a counselor. Talking with supervisors helped me understand how others felt. It wasn’t always important how I felt. My task was to reach out to others with words of healing, to benefit them. This was not normal conversation, let alone discussion or debate. These were my beginnings of learning empathy.

Questions to Ask Yourself

How do you respond to another’s emotional pain? It’s easy to spot someone else’s blunders, but difficult to admit our own. If you are willing, I’d like to offer you some ways to help you learn these lessons. You can begin by asking yourself these questions:

When I hear someone else express hurt, loss, or anger, do I:

  1. Want to learn more?
  2. Try to evade looking at their eyes?
  3. Tell them in no uncertain terms that their emotions are misplaced?
  4. Quote a Bible verse that seems relevant?

Empathy helps us negotiate difficult conversations. If you’d like to learn the skill of empathy, join me in this exploration of what empathy means. If you would do anything other than #1, you need these important tips on learning to listen better. Even if you would do #1 (you think), you may need a quick refresher to learn why, and to improve your responses in relating to others in distress. If reading this and the following blogs on this subject can help you become a better listener, I will feel gratified. I will feel rewarded If I can save you the sense of failure I felt. If I can help you become a better friend, a better listening comforter for friends in grief, and even a better representative of Jesus’ love, I will feel greatly satisfied.

Looking for a place to start? Download my “Top 10 Tips on Grief and Loss,” by clicking:  gordon-grose.ck.page/grieftips

[Credit: Woman crying: Victoria Borodinova Images, Pixabay.com]

About Grose

Gordon Grose loves most to write, speak, and preach on the message of hope from the book of Job. Using drama, video, and PowerPoint, he has preached and presented this message of hope to churches around the country. Grose pastored three congregations 25 years, then served 12 years as a pastoral counselor in a Portland, Oregon counseling clinic. He now serves with Good Samaritan Counseling Services, Beaverton, OR. A graduate of Wheaton College (IL), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Brandeis University, and Boston University, he comes from a rich and varied background in theological and counseling training. In 2015, Gordon published Tragedy Transformed: How Job's Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours, a book about turning to Job for hope after tragedy. If you have experienced life challenges or personal tragedy, visit his Transforming Tragedy (gordongrose.com) blog to learn more. TragedyTransformed.com provides a sample of Gordon's speaking as well as an opportunity to purchase copies of his book.
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