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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying to grow in empathy

Lynne Baab • Tuesday February 20 2024

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying to grow in empathy

First and foremost, empathy requires that we pay attention to another person. Their facial expression and body language. Their tone of voice. The way they describe situations, actions, feelings, and responses. As I’m sure you know, this is much harder than it sounds.

Obstacles to paying attention are manifold. Some obstacles come from outside, such as background noise, chaotic environments, or planes flying overhead. Most obstacles come from within, from our own thoughts and feelings. I can list so many things that flit through my mind when I’m trying to listen empathetically: the ingredients I need for dinner, the mess in the house that needs to be cleaned up before guests come, the argument I had with a family member, the number on the scale this morning, the article I've agreed to write, a friend's cancer diagnosis, my frustration with the inaction of the person I’m listening to, and on and on.

Creator God, you made the people I talk with. Help me focus on them. Help me set aside the pressing thoughts and feelings that flood my mind when I listen.

In rare instances, we feel empathy immediately when someone begins to tell us about their situation. In most instances, though, empathy takes time. During that time, our brains can easily jump around to varied topics rather than truly paying attention to the person in front of us. Next week I’ll give some suggestions for how to deal with those random thoughts and feelings.

Today, I want to give you a wonderful list from a communication textbook. The authors lay out specific suggestions for paying attention to another person in order to empathize:

  • Make an effort to understand your conversation partners.
  • Treat your conversation partners as persons with value, not as objects.
  • Pay serious attention to what they are saying.
  • Pay serious attention to what they feel about what they’re saying.
  • Be observant and try to “read” non-verbal behavior.
  • Ask yourself two questions: “What emotions do I believe the person is experiencing right now?” and “What are the cues the person is giving that I am using to draw this conclusion?” [1]

Relational God, help me make an effort to value and understand the people I talk with. Help me pay serious attention to what they feel. Give me eyes to see their non-verbal behavior and the cues that indicate their emotions.

I have mentioned several times that the word empathy is not used in the Bible. Seven times in the Gospels, Jesus is said to have compassion. In the parable of the prodigal son, the watching father has compassion. If you’d like to read the eight verses in the Gospels that mention compassion, look here. If you want to grow in empathy, in addition to using the bulleted list above, I recommend reading the four Gospels to learn from the model of Jesus. He showed empathy to many individuals, even if that word is not used to describe his conversations.

Compassionate One, fill me with your Holy Spirit so I can engage in conversations with the same empathy you had and still have.

Consciously choosing to use a variety of listening skills can also help us grow in empathy. When we focus on strategies for effective listening, our brain has less bandwidth to get sidetracked into our own preoccupations and feelings. As we think about and pray for the best listening skill to use, it may be easier to keep our focus on the other person.

One of the most significant listening skills for empathy is reflecting or reflection, when we reflect back to the speaker what we’re hearing or seeing in their body language. I described reflecting in three blog posts last October, here, here, and here.

Jesus, you were an amazing listener. Through your Holy Spirit, enable us to think about and pray for listening skills in a way that helps us keep our focus on the people we talk with.

I hope that all the prayers interspersed in this post have demonstrated how strongly I think we need to rely on God’s help to truly focus on another person’s thoughts and emotions.

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

God who chose us, thank you for the enormous privilege of being described as holy and beloved because of your love for us and your forgiveness in Christ. Help us clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

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Next week: how to deal with the “inner noise” that impedes empathy. Illustration by Dave Baab: Corner Peak, Lake Hawea, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”

I recently gave a talk at church on empathy. The video camera didn’t work properly, so I re-recorded it at home a couple of days later and posted it on You-Tube.

[1] Kathleen S. Verderber and Rudolph F. Verderber, Inter-Act: Interpersonal Communication Concepts, Skills and Contexts, 10th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 211. 

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