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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My husband and I are on our daily walk around the block. We do that twice a day, to connect, listen, and hold hands. It’s always the same circuit, more or less 1.5 miles long. It’s drizzling, so I’m extra worried and aware that cars might not be as attentive as I wish.
And heck, for sure: an SUV backs out of the driveway, straight into us. Being alert, we’re already on the lawn of the opposite house by the time it would have hit us.
I feel annoyed. Mainly scared, but it shows up as annoyance. As a committed commuter cyclist, I have had my fair share of almost being hit by cars who don’t look around enough. For the last three years, at least once a month, I have to jump the curb, swivel around, or do an emergency break to avoid being run over.
I confess, I have thoughts of breaking car windows to teach this damn driver a lesson.
Thank God I don’t.
Once the car is out on the street, the driver rolls down the window. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…” I see a fifty plus woman with tears in her eyes. “I’m really distracted, … my mom is dying … I’m off to say goodbye to her …”
She stops the car and sits there quietly, I assume to calm herself, before she drives off.
I feel shocked. And embarrassed. Never in the world would I have expected that.
My enemy image of car drivers shatters in a thousand pieces.
I remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice to always ask “Are you sure?”. He invites us to write this question down and put it somewhere where we will see it: a bathroom mirror, the fridge, our calendar. And live by it.
As I regret my quick jump to the conclusion that she was inconsiderate of my need for safety, I stutter “I am so sorry for you.”
She drives off. I ask my husband to confirm which house she came from, and I make a promise to myself to drop off a condolence note.
I go home and write the note.
And a sticky note “Are you sure?”.
It’s up on my bathroom mirror to remind me to not jump to conclusions about someone’s intentions and character.
How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.
I am at my dentist. I like her. She has an effervescent energy, a big smile, and bouncing red curls, and she explains what she’s gonna do. And, I get a heated cherry pit pillow in my neck and a bright pink blanket over my legs, every time I’m in the chair.
This time the procedure takes two hours. It is more complicated than she anticipated. In the middle of working with me, she walks away to work on someone else. I can hear them chatting cheerfully through the wall. She didn’t tell me she would be gone for half an hour, and she didn’t ask what she could do for me so I would feel comfortable in her absence.
I am left alone, confused and lost about what’s going on.
Soon, I need to go to the bathroom. I don’t know how to do that. I’m hooked up to something and I can’t call for help to untie me, because there is a divider jammed in my jaw. All I can do is make a muttering sound. I can tell my mumbling doesn’t draw her attention: her chatter continues cheerfully.
After half an hour, she comes back, finishes up, and presents me the bill.
Ouch. Financially, physically, and emotionally: I wanted more care and consideration.
I am too exhausted to complain. Instead — I build an enemy image of her. “She is incompetent. She is an idiot. She doesn’t care. And I certainly should never, ever go back.”
It takes several days, before I find the compassion to unwind it. Nonviolent Communication offers the following advice to shift enemy images:
- notice your unmet needs and any feelings they bring
- guess the needs the “enemy” was trying to meet by their behavior
- acknowledge that their behavior left your needs unmet
- distinguish between who they are and what they do
This last step of distinguishing person and behavior is essential. The fact that my dentist acted in a way that didn’t meet my needs for consideration and care doesn’t make her an inconsiderate person. There is a difference between what someone does (specific in space and time) and who someone is (generalized and ongoing). Compare “I am a thief” and “Last Monday, I took a $10 bill from the desk of my employer, and I knew it wasn’t mine.”
Sure, there were things she could have done differently, but that doesn’t make her an idiot or an incompetent dentist. It makes her someone who didn’t have the spaciousness, awareness or creativity to figure out how to meet all needs. If anything, she needs help to succeed at that, not criticism or judgment.
I do want my needs to be seen and valued. So my work is to receive enough empathy to know what I could ask of her at my next appointment. A request that’s about my experience, not her character.
Let me know how this lands for you.
I’m up early. Before the crack of dawn. I love it. I feel energized and excited about a new day, about being alive and having the opportunity to contribute, learn, and receive.
I get dressed and make my tea. Green tea. Yum.
Then I hear the alarm on my phone go off. First softly, then loudly. I rush toward the sound, I don’t want my husband to wake up. It gets louder, the closer I get to the bathroom.
As soon as I think I am getting close, the sound fades. Shoot! So where is it? I don’t want it to go off next to his ear. I feel relieved to hear it again, in the kitchen. That makes sense, it must be on the counter, where I made my tea.
And again, as soon as I think I am close, the sound subsides. No! My husband worked late last night and needs his sleep. Where is my phone?!
The sound increases, in the dining room. I look around, more frantic now. Nothing to be found nowhere.
Then it dawns on me. My cell phone has been in my pocket the whole time.
My alarm sounds like ocean waves rolling on the beach: softer and louder with each wave coming in and fading away. The precious thing I was looking for, was right there in my jeans all the time.
It made me think of a story Pema Chodron tells in “When Things Fall Apart”. It’s about a woman who’s sent out into the world with only a coat. She ends up destitute, with no means to support even her basic needs for survival. She complains about her poverty. Her coat goes to shreds, and in the hem she finds diamonds. Plenty enough to sell and support her.
That woman is me, running around, looking for my Buddha nature, my Christ essence, my basic goodness. All the while, I’m stuck in my anger, fear, jealousy, and judge myself for having these feelings.
I hope there comes a moment where I realize that I had Buddha nature all along, buried in my hardened heart. The place where I stop, connect, and celebrate my innate compassionate nature. Where I acknowledge my love, care and gratitude as “enough conditions to be happy”. Where I see my happiness and suffering as expressions of our shared humanity.
Our shared humanity with people I like, and people I don’t like. People who think and vote like me, and people who do the opposite. People whose words and actions are in alignment with my values, and people who speak and act in ways that conflict with my dreams for our world.
I imagine that when I am grounded in my own goodness, I can offer my insight to help others see theirs. To help them pause, take a breath, and smile at life.
I think that thàt is the best gift I can give to others.