Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Second Look at Empathy

When I was in graduate school I came across the journals of the Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard. I had been teaching for three years, and had reached that point where, as someone new to that profession, you are really quite unsure of what you are doing. To be sure, I was getting better at what I was doing, but I had no foundation that I could identify as providing both focus and direction. And then I came across the following lines, “If real success is to attend the effort to bring a person to a definite position, one must first of all take pains to find him where he is and begin there.  This is the secret of helping others…in order to help another effectively I must understand what he understands. If I do not know that, my greater understanding will be of no help to him…Instruction begins when you put yourself in his place so that you may understand what he understands and the way in which he understands it.”

In short, teaching begins with empathy, not with knowledge. It is, by definition, an imaginative act because I will never be the student I am instructing. All the accumulated knowledge that I acquire and seek to transmit will be worthless unless I first put myself in the place of the student. And, in a stroke of true subtle genius on Kierkegaard's part, I must understand not only WHAT the student understands, but HOW she understands it.

For decades now this has been a kind of mantra that has given me both a focus and a direction, but recently I have begun to think that there is a precursor to what Kierkegaard is exploring. There is a step I must take before I try to empathize with my students.

I am in the process of putting together a protocol that my students might use to practice empathy as a cognitive skill. But I find myself running into a couple of questions that seem to be precursors to being able to do that. My immediate question is this, "Is it possible that empathy is so hard to practice because we actually don't have an accurate and precise sense of how WE feel, much less trying to figure out how someone else feels?" And then, "How would I know how I feel?" 

For a few years now I have been experimenting with the following hypothesis-- "What we know most deeply, we know in our bodies." As I was seeking other people's thoughts about this idea, a friend of mine told me about the concept of  "Focusing." 

Focusing is the name given to a psychotheraputic process developed by a University of Chicago psychotherapist named Eugene Gendlin. It originated in some research trying to determine when psychotherapy was effective and when it was not. Gendlin and his team watched tapes of people in therapeutic sessions and became remarkably accurate in being able to predict which patients would find positive outcomes. The key was not in the techniques of the therapist; the key was whether or not the patient checked in with themselves about what their body was telling them during the sessions. (Interestingly, Maya Angelou touches, so to speak, on this very idea:  “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”)

Here are the first three steps in the six step program that Gendlin developed to re-create the successful patient behavior:

1) Clearing a Space

What I will ask you to do will be silent, just to yourself. Take a moment just to relax . . . All right – now, inside you, I would like you to pay attention inwardly, in your body, perhaps in your stomach or chest. Now see what comes there when you ask, "How is my life going? What is the main thing for me right now?" Sense within your body. Let the answers come slowly from this sensing. When some concern comes, DO NOT GO INSIDE IT. Stand back, say "Yes, that’s there. I can feel that, there." Let there be a little space between you and that. Then ask what else you feel. Wait again, and sense. Usually there are several things.

2) Identifying a Felt Sense

From among what came, select one personal problem to focus on. DO NOT GO INSIDE IT. Stand back from it. Of course, there are many parts to that one thing you are thinking about – too many to think of each one alone. But you can feel all of these things together. Pay attention there where you usually feel things, and in there you can get a sense of what all of the problem feels like. Let yourself feel the unclear sense of all of that.

3) Getting a Handle

 What is the quality of this unclear felt sense? Let a word, a phrase, a gesture, a metaphor or an image come up from the felt sense itself. It might be a quality-word, like tight, sticky, scary, stuck, heavy, jumpy or a phrase, or an image. Stay with the quality of the felt sense till something fits it just right.

I did this process the other day with myself with a problem that I am having trying to work with some students about an ethical issue. What I discovered surprised me, and I have been exploring it for the past few days.

My felt sense was in my throat--very clearly. And as I tried to describe it more the phrase "stuck in my craw" kept emerging. There is something fundamentally annoying or rankling or angering that sticks in my throat about this situation. Gendlin is right--my body is literally telling me that before I go on to try to understand what my students understand and how they understand it, I had better understand myself first.

 And so, I have added a precursor to what Kierkegaard has taught me: self-compassion. If I am going to be empathetic toward my students, as Kiekegaard directs, I need to recognize my own "suffering"  and be kind to it. In the world of Mindfulness practice, suffering is considered to be when one has pain of some kind - in my case, it turned out to be the experience of feeling frustration and anger - and then judgments about having those feelings compound the pain into suffering. Once I was able to validate that I did feel angry and was able to accept it and not judge it, I entered the realm of self-compassion. This has allowed me to be prepared to be empathetic and I can move on to helping my students. But I needed Focusing to get the phrase that would give me the handle to know with some precision and accuracy what I am feeling. More evidence for my hypothesis about what we know most deeply we know in our bodies.  Happy Easter.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Empathy: Opening Thoughts on the Use of Metaphor

I remember walking with my younger son one day when he was only four or five and looking down at his face and seeing that something was not quite right. So, I turned to ask him how he felt. He replied, “I feel sad.” At that moment I realized I had no idea how he really felt. What did “sad” mean?  Was it anxious? Depressed? Hungry? Isolated? Was he a miniature Hamlet who just didn’t know the word “melancholy” yet? The parent in me also felt sad because I deeply wanted to know how my son was feeling in the moment, and I felt...well, could I give a label to how I felt?

And so I began to listen more carefully to how the people around me were describing how they were feeling. What I noticed was that young children kept using metaphors and analogies to describe their feelings, and my students and my colleagues used abstract generalizations. The latter would say things like, "I am so stressed out." But the former would say things like, "I feel like the way the duckling in the pond on Boston Common did when she was looking around for her mother and couldn't see her because she was behind the long grass." 

And what I realized was that I always had a better understanding of how the children felt than I did of how the adults felt. In fact, I began to realize that the language itself was actually causing part of the problem. As we grew older we substituted abstractions for metaphors and, in the process, distanced ourselves from what we were truly feeling. 

And so I began to create "metaphor practice" in my classes. We would all create a metaphor about a time in the past 24 hours where we had experienced a complicated emotion. Like this one I still remember, "You know the cans of Ready Whip that you shake up and then you press the spout and it makes this sound like a rushing wind or a tidal wave and billows of foam come out, but then after you use a lot of the can you start to hear the hollow metallic ping of the whippet of nitrous oxide that is inside the can and then you press the spout and it is this thin, dribbling sound and you just get runny gunk-- I feel like that."

And what we would do is unpack the metaphor. You can try it with the Ready Whip one; it is remarkably rich. What we discovered is that we all (the metaphor creator included) came to a much fuller understanding of how each of us felt. There has been a great deal written about "role playing" as a way to teach people to be more empathetic, but I have been thinking that metaphor actually provides a simpler, more immediate and less complicated way to accomplish the same thing. 


 At this point I tried to see if I could attach metaphors to the experience of being in some of my colleagues' classes. (You can do this with your own as well, but it is easier to ask your own students. What you discover will surprise and amaze you, I guarantee.) There was one history teacher who taught class like Teddy Roosevelt going up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish- American war. There was an assembling of the troops, a pep talk about mission and purpose, an exhortation about attitude--and then, a full scale, high energy half an hour frontal charge at the topic where some of the troops fell by the wayside on the way up and were left for dead. But the ones who made it to the top were delirious, much more alive than they had felt forty minutes before.

Or the English teacher whose class was like playing the old 1960's Milton Bradely game of Operation. In that game you get a pair of tweezers and you have to remove the "Adam's apple" or the "wrenched ankle" or the "Charlie horse" from a cavity in the board (there were lots of metaphors in this game). The patients parts, however, were electrified so if you were quite dexterous and had well developed small motor skills you were rewarded with money for removing the infected part. But if you were not and your tweezers hit the side of the electrified opening, then a buzzer sounded and you lost your turn. The class was, truly, electrifying.

At about this time a book emerged by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson entitled Metaphors We Live By, and I started to teach a course whose "final exam" was the creation of a set of metaphors that represented the embedded foundation upon which each individual actually based their world-view. Lakoff and Johnson were interested in the broad sweeps of figuring out what was valued by a society by looking at their metaphors. (For example, "Time is money" - a very rich metaphor to mine! If "mining" is in fact, the metaphor you want to use for. You come to realize that metaphor is everywhere once you start listening carefully.)

Ultimately, this deeper awareness and exploration of metaphor can be a foundational cognitive skill for transmitting a larger life skill that can't be taught in traditional ways: empathy.
(to be further discussed).