Nourish relationships and self-care

Empathy works. It always does.

SXSW and sympathetic triggers

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My friend is excited about his piano recital. He is anxious too. He expects around 80 attendants.

Pooh.

Peanuts.

I have much more to be excited about. And anxious. Speaking at SXSW. Potentially 575 attendees. Probably national exposure. YouTube video. The same festival that has President Obama as the keynote speaker. Thàt, my friend, is something to be excited about. And anxious.

Hum.

Whàt am I thinking?! (Thank God, not saying!). How did I get into this comparison game?

Nonviolent Communication calls this a sympathetic trigger. It happens when someone talks about something that reminds us of our own experience, especially when we have unfinished business with that experience or unmet needs around it. Instead of keeping our focus on our friend’s experience, our attention is drawn to our own sympathetic world. The trigger turns our attention inward with potentially obnoxious consequences: consequences that don’t include our friend’s needs, and maybe not even our own.

There is nothing wrong with sympathetic triggers per se. They are one of the many ways we can connect to others. Sometimes it brings it’s sibling one-upping, giving advice, or reassuring. Things that are not empathy. They can be a way of connecting, if our friend wants to support our style of listening and reacting.

If we’re sympathetically triggered and our friend wants empathy instead, it won’t work. There is a mismatch between what he is asking and what we are offering.

If that’s the case (which for me happens frequently enough), we have choice: We can self-express: “Hey, I hear you’re excited and anxious about your piano recital. As I listen to you, I notice that I am distracted by my excitement around my  panel participation at SXSW. Would you be willing to listen to me for a bit, and then I focus back to you?” Or: “I don’t think I can listen to you with as much presence as I wish, is there someone else you could reach out for to give you empathic support?” Or: “Are you willing to give me a minute for self-connection to support myself first, and then I come back to listen to you?”

Those are strategies that both support our trigger and honors our friend’s need to be heard. We try to compassionately recognize all needs, what’s alive in our friend and what’s up for us listening to our friend.


You want help to work with your sympathetic triggers? Contact me, 512-589-0482 for a free, discovery session.

Thank you, David Nayer, for editing this post during your travels. I am inspired by your dedication to contribute!

Author: Elly van Laar

I am a coach. I specialize in helping professionals schedule time for relationships and self-care. I have a Master's degree in Political Science, Leiden University, the Netherlands. I love meditation, walking, gardening, biking, and hanging out with family and friends.

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