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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying for wisdom in using empathy

Lynne Baab • Wednesday February 7 2024

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying for wisdom in using empathy

Interest in empathy skyrocketed after the discovery of mirror neurons in the early 1990s. As I wrote two weeks ago, mirror neurons enable us to respond to and even experience the actions and emotions of others. The number of academic studies about empathy is astonishing. Empathy is studied in relation to just about any profession or life activity you can imagine.

I want to give you a sampling of the kinds of articles about empathy you’ll find online.

Here’s a quotation from a consulting firm specializing in negotiating skills: “Evidencing empathy leads to negotiation success.”

From an education center at U.C. Berkeley: “Students who are empathetic are more cooperative in class, have better relationships with their teachers, and are more engaged in school. Students with more empathy tend to have higher GPAs and, eventually, greater success in college.”

This quotation comes from an academic study focused on personal coaching: “Client-perceived coach empathy positively influenced how clients viewed coaching success.” When I found that quotation, I thought it was focused on sports coaching. Later, I did an online search for sports coaching and empathy, and I found many articles from sources ranging from coaching blogs to academic studies. Apparently, people in almost every area of life are thinking about the value of empathy.

The challenge in deploying empathy is that it is quite tiring. I’ll give you the definition of empathy that I mentioned two weeks ago. It comes from the field of communication studies. Read this over and consider how much energy is required to do this:

“Empathy is the cognitive process of identifying with or vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. Scholars recognize that empathy is an important element in understanding and maintaining good interpersonal relationships. When we empathize, we are attempting to understand and/or experience what another person understands and/or experiences.”
—Verderber and Verderber, Inter-Act: Interpersonal Communication Concepts, Skills and Contexts

These communication scholars stress that empathy is a cognitive process. We put our minds to work to take another person seriously: their values, their thoughts, their emotions, their priorities. Brain work is taxing, requiring a lot of energy.

Empathy involves our whole bodies. In addition to the cognitive commitment required, empathy has an emotional component. We feel some of what the other person is feeling. Empathy sometimes has a physical component. Have you ever felt like someone punched you in the gut when you hear about a loved one’s illness or sadness? 

We can pray to use empathy wisely, well, and only when most effective and necessary. Some listening needs to be objective and not empathetic.

When discussing plans for an upcoming event, we need to focus on the time, place, transportation, food, and other details. Empathy is not necessary. When cooking dinner, repairing a car, or playing pickleball with a friend or family member, we need to focus on the task. This is a blessing because objective listening is less draining than empathetic listening.

In many conversations about politics or religion/faith, where there might be disagreement, we need to focus on facts for at least part of the conversation. What are the key points related to this issue from your perspective? Who do you view as authoritative on this subject? What or who has influenced you the most in this area? After some facts are clear, we might want to shift into a more empathetic listening mode. Tell me why this matters to you. Or, I’d love to hear how this influences your everyday life.

When I spoke recently on empathy, a friend talked with me afterward. She is a very kind-hearted mom with children at home. She said that too much empathy causes her to engage too deeply with what her children are feeling. She’s concerned about becoming enmeshed with them. She knows empathy is very valuable, but some listening needs to be objective rather than empathetic simply so that others are free to feel their own emotions without seeing a strong emotional response from us.

Empathy is valuable. Empathy is tiring. Too much empathy can derail conversations that need to center on tasks and facts. Too much empathy can cause enmeshment.

Complicated! We need the Holy Spirit to guide us into wise use of empathy. We need God’s wisdom for each of our lives. Do I need to use empathetic listening more? Or less? When empathy is appropriate and helpful, we need God’s empowerment to set aside our own concerns and focus on another person’s emotions, thoughts, priorities, and experiences.

Compassionate Jesus, we ask that you would walk beside us as we strive to use empathy well. We ask for the guidance of your Holy Spirit about how to grow in empathetic listening skills and when to deploy them. Give us a loving heart and give us wisdom, we pray.  

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Next week: components of empathy. Illustration by Dave Baab: Cherry blossoms in the University of Washington Quad. (I must be longing for spring.) If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”

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