Here's the Thing About Empathy

I am married to one of the world’s most compassionate people. This may sound like a grandiose overstatement unless know my wife, in which case you know I’m not exaggerating.

My wife makes people feel cared for, understood and loved deeply. If you’re familiar with the Enneagram, she’s an off-the-charts Type 2 - tuned into people’s needs and always ready to help, especially if you’re alone and need a friend. She'll check in on you, cheer you on, and cry alongside you when you’re hurting. She can barely watch the news and has never seen a horror movie. It's just too painful to watch other people in pain. She’s easily the kindest, most merciful person most people have ever met.

And I never hear the end of it from everyone we know, how much I LUVVV your wife. It’s kind of annoying.

I, as you might have guessed, am not wired that way at all. On busy days I’m content to leave things at surface level. I’ve got a full plate today and I assume you do too. So if I ask you how you’re doing and you say “fine”, then we’re both off the hook. It takes genuine effort for me to show up and be fully present in conversations sometimes. It’s like my brain has its own pair of earbuds that need to be taken out in order for me to really listen.

When I started telling stories on film, I assumed that the quality of any story I told depended on how talented a filmmaker I was. And to some extent, that was true. But it wasn’t the whole truth.

Years ago, on one particular shoot, I was half-listening to a woman share her life story, maintaining eye contact and nodding along like a good interviewer. But I was listening like a producer listens, beaming out good vibes but paying more attention to her on-camera presence than her story. I was focused on her lighting and the amount of room noise, how often she said “um” in her sentences.

Then, she just stopped. And I panicked. Is it over? Are we done? Do I need some follow-up questions? (What’s this story about again?) I was busted. She had shared a beautiful story and my head was someplace else. I had completely missed the point of capturing a story.

Without empathy, there’s not much good listening. And without good listening, there’s really no point to storytelling. We can be “all about” stories and narrative and still miss the point that, at the root of storytelling is a potential for meaningful human connection. That’s what empathy is. Here’s why we need it.

Empathy moves us from hearing to listening.

As church storytellers, we're not always the greatest listeners.  Nothing personal.  It just takes time and energy.  We know what we’re passionate about. We know what our church is asking us to do.  But empathy tunes us into another person’s unique experience and perspective.  To truly listen, we need to slow down, lean in and be fully present.

As storytellers, we are usually the first set of ears on a story.  When we truly listen to someone’s story, we’ll begin to catch things that our audience needs to hear.  And we’ll be in on a discovery process that leads to connection, truth and beauty.

Empathy moves us from observing to seeing.

Chad Fowler says that empathy allows you to “experience the world in higher resolution as you perceive through not only your perspective but the perspectives of those around you.”  I fully agree. 

One of the greatest gifts of storytelling lies in the fact that other people experience life differently than you do.  They connect with God differently than you do.  We all belong to the same God but we also belong to one another.  Empathy helps us see glimpses of ourselves in someone else’s story.

Empathy moves us from avoidance to connection.

Pain avoidance is a basic human instinct.  We’ll do almost anything to not be in physical or emotional pain.  And yet we know that God shapes us in moments of suffering, times where we feel completely out of control.  And though we’d prefer to think that we’re connected to each other through our strengths, the opposite is true.  We’re connected through our weakness.

Nearly every story you tell will have pain in it somewhere.  By treating people’s aching moments as sacred transformations, you’ll participate in a ministry of healing, both for the person sharing and the people listening.  And by showing a meaningful perspective on pain, you’ll demonstrate the unfailing goodness of God.

A few weeks ago, I asked my Facebook friends to describe how an empathetic person makes them feel.  The responses were heartwarming - "Connected. Seen. Valued. Understood. Loved. Like I'm not alone. Like they really want to hear my story. Like everything else can wait. Like an angel has entered the room."  Can you imagine affecting people like this?  This is the environment that empathy creates.

The thing about empathy is that it takes effort.  Seth Godin says, “We're not wired to walk in someone else’s shoes, it's not our first instinct. Showing up with empathy is difficult, hard to outsource, and will wear you out.  But it's precisely what we need from you."  

For most of us it doesn’t come naturally.  But as storytellers, empathy is what moves us closer to meaningful human connection, the thing we’re all reaching for.