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November 20, 2006

As Powerful As Brylcreem

Kelly's column is reprinted with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

I THOUGHT I knew all about empathy. I’ve written about it, given speeches about it, made a web site about it ( and generally evangelized about its terrific healing powers on every street corner since 2004. In that year, I was the recipient of so much empathy (thanks to a run-in with late-stage breast cancer), I thought I could write the book on it.

Silly girl.

Empathy isn’t just the thing you pack in your bag on the way to see a friend in crisis. Rather, as I was shown last week, empathy is your primary tool for every interaction. But that’s putting the punchline before the joke, so to speak. Let me back up a bit.

Last Wednesday, I had coffee with Tracy, an old friend whose parenting style leans towards…um…well, let’s just say she is kinder with her children than I am with mine. In my dark days, pre-enlightenment, I may have even described her mothering as indulgent. She starts every interaction trying to make sure her children know she understands how they feel while I start every interaction trying to make sure my children know who’s boss.

Tracy and I had a long time to talk; we were AWOL mothers in New York City, many states between us and our children--and their overripe diapers, unbuckled shoes and running noses. Buzzing with caffeine, trapped in a cafĂ© by sheets of rain, we talked about what she’s learning in her parenting classes, which she gets for the cost of tuition at her children’s private school.

Oh boy, have I been blowing it around here.

Children, Tracy reported, want to feel that they have been felt. (Children are clearly just like people in this way.) Hmm. In my interactions with my children, I am operating as my husband sometimes does with me. No time for empathy! Let’s get to the good part, the satisfying part: problem solving! But satisfying for whom? Like me, my kids may not need a solution as much as they need someone to hear them out, a little emotional camaraderie. “It is hard to zip up stiff, new boots.” “Amoxicillin chewable tablets do taste like Ajax.” “I like it when Toto pulls the curtain back on the Wizard too!”

But here’s the finer point, and the place where I oversimplified. While empathy is big enough to reshape any interaction and consequently any relationship, in most cases, the empathetic act is, by comparison, microscopic. A nod is the quintessential show of empathy. Eye contact is also high on the list. Mirroring expressions – a frown for a frown, a furrowed brow for a furrowed brow – ranks right up there with actually mirroring their words. “You really want to have a playdate.” “You’re so hungry you could eat a horse.” "That homework assignment is pretty tough." I find after addressing the urgent need [to be heard and acknowledged], it’s easier to explain that dinner isn’t ready, we can set up a playdate for tomorrow, and homework is homework, everybody’s gotta do it.

Mirroring and eye contact and nodding may sound like a lotta touchy-feely garbage but the thing is if your children (or, for that matter, your spouse) can’t tell from your behavior that you’re really listening, you might as well not be. So though the temptation may be strong, you cannot hope to empathize while reading the paper or checking the score of the game or finishing a column. The good news is you don’t have to. Empathizing is so powerful that, as the old Brylcreem ad went, a little dab’ll do ya.