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Tips for Bringing Empathy to the Table

Posted on: February 14th, 2013 by Anne Fishel, Ph.D

kid convoWhile Valentine’s Day is often about sugar highs and overpriced romantic dinners, it is, at heart, a celebration of love. It can also be the springboard for talk about love—not just as a one-time, special event during a dinner of red foods and chocolate-dipped strawberries, but as part of your nightly routine.

For most of us, food is a metaphor for love, and surely getting a home-cooked meal on the table most nights should suffice. But what if you also want to have more conversations that promote love?

I think that at the core of love is the capacity to show up and tune in to another person’s experience. This is an experience that starts at the beginning of life, when a parent soothes a baby with a calm voice, a gentle gaze and relaxing cuddling. It is this feeling that someone else “gets me” that continues to be essential to making deep connections with others. Being able “to get” someone else is what empathy is all about.

When children are toddlers, they start to develop the capacity for empathy—not only can they comfort themselves, but they also can comfort others. When my younger son (at an age when he wasn’t yet making sentences) saw his brother crying, he quietly climbed a chair and reached for a box of Band Aids—not a perfect solution to hurt feelings, but certainly a sign of brotherly empathy. The capacity to feel empathy — ‘How you feel matters to me’ –is part of our wiring as humans and forms the basis of all types of love: sibling, parental, as well as romantic.

So, how can this capacity for empathy be woven into our everyday table discussions? Most simply by making sure that everyone gets a chance to talk, and feels that his words and experience matter. This means, in practical terms, that only one person talks at a time, eye contact is made with the person who is speaking, you occasionally register that you “get” how the speaker is feeling, and that no one is competing with gadgets and screens for attention.

Another way to develop the capacity for empathy is to try to name feelings. Naming your children’s feelings helps them feel understood, and naming your own models this skill.

You might do this by telling a story about your day that includes how you felt at different points. Take, for example, this bland story: “I lost my wallet today at the bank. When I went back, the teller handed it to me.” If you add in your feelings, the story not only becomes a more interesting one, but you’ll have also modeled for your children how to name feelings. “I was really distracted when I went to the bank today because I was thinking about the presentation I have to give at work. I guess I was feeling pretty worried about it. Then, when I got home and realized I’d lost my wallet, I was in a panic. The wallet had money in it and some of my favorite pictures of you kids. I really felt like crying. But, I pulled myself together and walked to the bank not knowing what to expect. When I got there, the teller smiled at me and held up my wallet. I wanted to hug her. I felt so relieved and grateful. Made me think of my mother’s saying—‘better to have lost and found than never to have lost at all!’”

When your child tells a story, you can ask how she felt at different points, or suggest a feeling (“You sound really excited about the game you learned at recess.”) A caution here: Too many questions about feelings will make you sound like a therapist, which (even if you are one), does not always invite the willing disclosure of feelings. These questions need to be a light seasoning to the conversation, like a pinch of cayenne rather than a heavy dosing.

To lighten up the project of learning to identify feelings, try this game. Have one person volunteer to leave the table for a minute. Once she leaves, the rest of the family decides on an emotion. Then, when the family member returns, the rest of the family talks and eats with that feeling in mind, but without naming the emotion. The family member who is in the dark has to guess what emotion is being enacted. For example, if the emotion is ‘worry,’ someone might say, “I think you’ll bite my head off if I get up to get another helping of soup,” and a child might say, “I have so much homework to do tonight, I’m never going to get to sleep.”  Alternatively, if the emotion is ‘happy’ a parent might say, “That soup was so delicious, I can’t wait to have some more,” and another family member might declare, “I am really enjoying the conversation we’re having tonight.” Each family member can take a turn leaving the room, and proposing the emotion.

On Valentine’s Day, however, the range of possible emotions may be a bit narrow: The main feeling that some of us will want to identify is ‘glee’ at getting to eat a boxful of chocolate.

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