I have written before about how my family values extreme empathy. We try to meet each other first by empathizing, whether it’s adults or children. We try to validate feelings and then work to find solutions. What is becoming clear to me is that even though we have this goal, it isn’t always achieved. There are nuances in our language that are preventing our sentiments from coming through.
A huge culprit in the way of our empathetic encounters is the word ‘but.’ I find myself trying to work my agenda into statements of empathy. I say things like, “I can see you are upset about getting your diaper changed. You don’t want me to change your diaper right now, but it’s time for your nap.” or “I understand that you don’t want to put your shoes on, but we have to go now.” The empathy is there, but it is inserted as a placation. Real empathy does not have a hidden agenda. Real empathy isn’t rushed through. It serves to allow ourselves to truly hear the other side in an effort to understand what it might be like to be in a different position.
I have started to reflect on the use of the word ‘but.’ When I think of times I’ve heard it when all I really needed was to be heard myself, I can attest for the fact that it devalues an entire response. Hearing something like, “I know you’re really tired and not feeling well, but I the kids really need to eat dinner.” The value of expressing my discomfort of being tired and sick was lost as soon as the word ‘but’ joined the party. It is as though the word negates everything that comes before it. It’s a word that supersedes. The word ‘but’ gets in the way of unconditional empathy. Unconditional empathy speaks of unconditional love. And so, it is no longer a word that is welcome in my home (although it still comes knocking from time to time).
The difference between using and not using the word ‘but’ may sound something like this:
“I can see that you don’t want to have a nap right now. You look really frustrated, but it’s time to sleep”
“I can see that you don’t want to have a nap right now. You look really frustrated. It’s hard when you want to keep playing and mommy says it’s time to sleep. I understand. I want you to have a good rest so we can play together this afternoon. It’s time for a nap. I’ll see you when you wake up.”
In the second example, I did not change the outcome. The child is still expected to have a nap. I included a few extra sentences of empathy, without using the word ‘but.’ I also included and a separation of the empathy from what has to happen by explaining why it has to happen.
Here is another example:
“I know you want to buy that toy. It is difficult to see something you want and not get it, but you have already got a firetruck toy at home.”
“I know you want to buy that toy. It looks really neat. What do you like best about it? Yes, those flashing lights and sounds are really cool. It looks like it would be a lot of fun to play with. I want us to choose only the best toys to bring into our home. We already have a firetruck, so we’ll leave this one for another boy or girl to buy.”
I feel like a bit more effort up front to find connection during my expressions of empathy goes a long way. It’s rather like in permaculture where a lot of time is spent in the design phase before beginning the actual work! I have been trying to revise the language I am using with the children and am seeing some amazing results. Now, I just have to have empathy for my process of change, as I count the number of ‘buts’ that are still uttered!