It’s 3:00 am. I am woken up by the sound of a bee. I feel tired, and turn on a light to see if the bee is inside and I need to take it out.
Nope, it is outside, hovering in front of its hive.
My fatigue turns into sadness. An outcast is desperately trying to get back in. Bees are sensitive, smart, and social, so I am sure they have a kind of mechanism to punish members. Ostracizing could certainly be one of them. It’s effective for humans, why wouldn’t it be for bees?
At 7:00 am no buzz. I feel relieved. Thank God, maybe the bee was accepted back in.
When I tell my husband, he laughs. He tells me that Texan beehives get hot in summer, and sometimes bees hover in front of it to cool off, especially right before dawn. Like hanging out on the porch, before we had air conditioning.
With a mixture of amusement and embarrassment, I realize I confused empathy with sympathy.
I thought I was respectfully understanding what the bee was experiencing, as if I was walking in its shoes (flying in its wings?). Instead, I was sympathizing: not walking in its shoes, but running away with them, and thinking they were mine. I was superimposing my experience of fitting in, as a lens to look at its experience. Because I was ostracized as a six-year-old, and stood apart, doesn’t mean that others who stand apart, are being ostracized. Probably not this particular bee.
Empathy is not better than sympathy
It’s just different. Empathy helps to respectfully understand someone else’s experience. Sympathy is more about creating closeness by sharing our own experience: “I think I know what you’re talking about since I think I’ve been in a similar situation.”
And since our situation can be different from theirs, sympathy can create as much confusion as understanding. It shifts the focus to us, instead of maintaining it on our partner. It’s more about being understood than understanding.
If you want to understand your team members, empathy is your tool. When you listen for and accept their reality as is, without imposing your lens on it, you can more effectively help (or empower) them resolve whatever issue they’re talking about.
With empathy I could have provided shade for the beehive. With sympathy I would try to mediate between the bee community and this single bee (if there is even such a thing as bee mediation).
For some of us empathy may not be our go-to strategy when we listen. We may “react, before reflect”. If you want to learn to “reflect, before react”, I’m your girl. We can work on specific tools and skills to support you be the team leader you want to be. I’m sure you can learn to be more effective, create better results, and go home fulfilled and satisfied.
Schedule your discovery session to start working with me.
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I’m biking on Duval Street. It is a busy two-lane street, where cars drive 40 miles per hour on average. Since there are no separate bike lanes, I choose to bike on the sidewalk, to keep me safe. As always, I am alert and careful. Especially for cars backing out.
But this one I didn’t see coming. Out of the blue, a black pick-up truck backs out of it’s parking spot at at least 20 miles an hour.
I hardly have enough time to turn my handlebars, jump off my bike, and land on knees and palms on the gravel surface. I feel a bruise growing on my right thigh.
The truck driver probably doesn’t notice me and keeps backing out. “What an idiot! He didn’t look over his shoulder and blind spot! He’s incompetent and a danger to other cyclists!” Infuriated I jump up and bang on his window. “What?” “You almost hit me as you were backing out!” “Are you okay?” “Hardly.” “I’m sorry” and he drives off.
When I tell my friend about this incident, she asks incredulously “I thought you were practicing Nonviolent Communication?” “Yes, but this is screaming in giraffe.”
Now I realize I was not. I was just screaming.
Four steps to get support for unmet needs
Screaming in giraffe means we use force to draw attention and support to our needs. Usually we sense urgency about this. I believe there are four elements of successfully screaming in giraffe (versus just screaming):
- Awareness of our needs being unmet.
- Enough self-acceptance and compassion to see our needs as beautiful(instead of a deficit, as if there is something wrong with us for having those needs, as if we’re ‘needy’).
- Transform any enemy image of those, whom we think are responsible for our needs being unmet, so we can ask for their support to meet our needs (how do you think I did on that count?). Like offering our requests with Santa Claus energy.
- Openness to explore strategies to meet as many needs as possible: ours and those of other stakeholders (that’s way harder when you perceive urgency).
Listening to unmet needs
When we hear someone screaming in giraffe, it helps to listen for unmet needs. Rather than focusing on how they express themselves (which might just sound like screaming), we can use empathy to deepen our understanding of their experience, listen for needs, and figure out strategies that meet as many needs as possible.
Live the life you really want, with yourself and others
I believe this process helps us to live the life we really want and create the closeness and authenticity we long for.
Let me know how this landed for you: I would love to hear from you.
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All my commitments fly out the window: “I reflect, before I react.” “I see the positive in every person and every situation.” “I accept myself unconditionally, especially when shame arises.”
In a second. I have nothing left but a puddle of shock, fear, shame, and anger.
‘Tragic expression of unmet needs?’ Never heard of it. All I hear are criticisms, demands, evaluations. ‘Seeing our interdependence?’ Not today. I take her remarks personally and my mind races with defenses, counter arguments, attacks. ‘Empathetically guessing: “Are you feeling upset and scared? You want more respect and safety?”’ My mind draws a blank.
All I can do, is stare at her moving video image on my computer screen and desperately (and thanks to my Sangha, moderately successfully) try NOT to express the angry, anxious thoughts clamoring to come out of my mouth.
I barely succeed in saying “I love you” at the end.
After we hang up, I feel deflated, discouraged, hopeless.
My thoughts are: “What a fool I am for believing I could create a warm, extensive community that includes me, my husband, my family, and friends. What an utter idiot I am for having that crazy dream, trying to get my reality closer to my vision.”
The emotional tension is so intense that all I can think is “Give up, give up, give up. Pack your stuff and fly back to the Netherlands.”
And then I also think of something I read in Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline”:
“The juxtaposition of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want) generates what we call ‘creative tension’: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution. The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.”
“People often have great difficulty talking about their visions, even when the visions are clear. Why? Because we are acutely aware of the gaps between our vision and reality… These gaps can make a vision seem unrealistic or fanciful. They can discourage us or make us feel hopeless… If we fail to distinguish emotional tension from creative tension, we predispose ourselves to lowering our vision.”
This was a literal and figurative call back to reality. Apparently I am not anywhere close to seeing my vision fulfilled. My reality is very different from where I thought it was. Yes, this is a set-back, and yes, I feel discouraged about it.
And that doesn’t mean that my journey is in vain. It means the difference is a learning opportunity for me. Where am I on the path? How do I work -not fight- with the obstacles I face? How can I be more creative, resourceful, and whole?
How can I make the journey the reward?
And with that inquiry I shift to feeling a little more settled, at peace, and hopeful.
Let me know: how do you work with creative tension? I would love to hear from you.
Friday January 5, during Shabbat service, I was formally welcomed into the community of the Jewish people, making myself available to “become a partner with God in the work of creation and in the healing and redemption of the world”.
It is a festive, joyous evening of community and celebration. My husband is there, my stepdaughter, my friends Jen, Margaret, her kids and parents-in-law, and of course my congregation. We sing, we pray, we hug. My stepdaughter and I lit the candles to welcome in the Shabbat and recite the prayer. We are a bit nervous about whether we remember the whole Hebrew blessing. My husband reads one of his poems to express how I have contributed to his life. The congregation president reads one of my blogs. She thought it was the best way to describe how I show up in life. My stepdaughter jumps up and shouts “Yeah, Elly”. The cantor sings a song about being held by the wings of Shechinah (Spirit) and says I am a gift to the congregation.
I feel a bit shy with this shower of appreciation. I think of a quote by Marshall Rosenberg:
“For many of us, it is difficult to receive appreciation gracefully. We fret over whether we deserve it. We worry about what’s being expected of us… Or we’re nervous about living up to the appreciation.”
These people who share their appreciation, do they know that I have lied? That I get angry and yell? That I have people I let down? That I have done things I feel ashamed of? Would they still appreciate me if they know the whole truth about me, and nothing but the truth?
Maybe. Maybe not.
As I sit there and receive congratulation after hug after welcoming, I start to relax. Yes, I have done things in my life I wished I could undo, and I have desisted from doing things that I wished I had done. That’s the truth. And even though that is correct, it is also incomplete. Because I have also helped others, listened to my friend’s suffering, refrained from saying hurtful things, committed to a 95% vegan, eco-friendly, fair-trade diet, tried the best I could.
As I open up to the appreciation and love, I see more clearly that I have contributed to other people’s needs. I see that I have the capacity to make life more wonderful for others. And since I already am aware where I have made life more miserable for others, receiving appreciation helps me better see the whole picture of who I am and how I show up.
How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.
To my husband. I feel pretty shitty about it. Scared. I fear I’ll lose acceptance by confessing. I know this feeling from long, long ago and it has motivated me more than once to show up with less honesty than I wanted.
A few weeks ago I described washing the cushion covers of one of our living room chairs. My husband has taken care of this chair for 25 years, and it was in almost pristine condition. I had asked to clean it and we had agreed to try the washing machine set on cold temperature and delicates. I shared in a previous story that the covers came out shrunken and shredded. I wrote that it was an accident, and that I forgot to check the temperature.
I actually knew the temperature of the washing machine and had made a conscious choice to wash them on a ‘warm’ setting anyway. I thought it wouldn’t do any harm, and I was convinced that a warm setting would do a better cleaning job. When they came out shredded and shrunken, I felt shocked.
I did irreparable harm, and it was my fault. I felt shame. I feared my husband would be angry, blame me, and we would lose connection.
So I lied.
At our next Nonviolent Communication empathy practice, a friend asks me if I really hadn’t checked the temperature. With my husband nearby, I decide to continue the lie. I don’t want her to know the truth, before he does. That only seems to aggravate the lie. I feel horrible immediately. I sacrifice my needs for integrity and honesty in service of my needs for acceptance and emotional safety.
As soon as our practice ends and our community leaves, I tell my husband the truth about what had happened. To my relief he seems to already have understood this. He appears to hold no grudge or judgment, just a genuine regret that the cushions were ruined.
It reminds me of a lesson about mourning and self-forgiveness:
“Mourning in NVC is the process of fully connecting with the unmet needs and the feelings that are generated when we have been less than perfect. It is an experience of regret, but regret that helps us learn from what we have done without blaming or hating ourselves. We see how our behavior ran counter to our own needs and values, and we open ourselves to feelings that arise out of that awareness. […]
We follow up on the process of mourning with self-forgiveness. Turning our attention to the part of the self which chose to act in the way that led to the present situation, we ask ourselves, “When I behaved in the way in which I now regret, what need of mine was I trying to meet?” (Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication).
I feel relieved to see how much I value intimacy and honesty in my closest relationships and cleanliness in my house, and how my strategies failed to include my hubbie, my roommate in brainstorming strategies that meet all those needs.
When I call my friend that same evening and explain what happened, she laughs. Wholeheartedly. She is amused by the tangle of cushions, honesty, and acceptance. She doesn’t have any judgments. Just compassion for our human predicament, and empathy for my needs for love, acceptance, and belonging.
How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.
Ever traveled business class?
In all my travels to and from my family and friends in the Netherlands, I travel economy class. I certainly have looked with envy as I walked past the business class seats, seeing them transform into beds, with clean, cotton pillowcases and yummy comforters.
I have never wanted to spend the money. I have made do with squeezing into an economy seat that I can’t stretch out, expecting to be startled awake when my head slips, as I try to sleep upright in a less than ideal position.
This July, I again traveled to the Netherlands to see my family and friends. And lucky me, my friend used his air miles to buy me plane tickets. When he emailed me my ticket, he wrote that the ticket allows me to use the lounge in Amsterdam and Houston. I didn’t pay much attention to that clue until the evening before my departure.
That evening when I print the ticket, I notice I have a seat all the way in the front of the plane!… When I take a closer look at the seating map, I see… YES! row eight IS business class, and my seat is one of those amazing, reclining seats…
So here I am, a simple girl from the Netherlands, sitting like a queen in this luxurious and comfortable chair. I can’t stop smiling. I play with all the different buttons testing my seat positions: all the way down, all the way up, my legs up and my back down, back up and legs down, everything at 45 degrees! You might understand why, with my excitement, it takes me more than an hour to finally take a nap. Nope. Not a nap. Sleep, deep sleep for more than four hours!
In this glorious moment of having all my senses satisfied, I remember an exercise by Rick Hanson to help change my brain for the better.
It is the HEAL process:
- Have the experience: bring awareness to your needs being met, that you have feelings you enjoy, that something positive is happening in your life
- Enrich the experience by focusing on the freshness of the moment, engaging all your senses
- Absorb the experience as if you’re basking in sunshine, extending the positive feelings with a few minutes
- Link this positive experience to a negative one in the same realm, to transform the brain’s negativity bias – which Rick Hanson describes as “teflon for positive, velcro for negative”.
Doing this exercise I notice I’m transforming distracting thoughts of scarcity, that I don’t have enough, that I don’t have support to seeing that in this moment I have more than enough conditions to be happy and that I have all the support I want. A sheer delightful experience of abundance.
Which positive experience can you link to transform a negative one? Let me know, I would be delighted to read from you.