Listening with Empathy

By Scott Cormode

August 28, 2020

De Pree Journal

Empathy is feeling with people. Feeling with people requires me to connect with something in myself that has felt what the person in front of me is currently feeling. I need not have been in that exact situation before, but I need to identify with the universal thing that they are feeling—the thing that all humans feel. I may not be a fifteen-year-old girl who was just dumped by the only boyfriend she’s ever had, but I have had my heart set on something only to have it crushed unexpectedly. I may not be an eighty-year-old husband sitting with his hospitalized wife, but I have been terrified and worried—and powerless—all at the same time. Listening requires empathy.

Empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy is feeling something about someone else. It is abstract and detached—and a bit self-centered in that it’s about how their situation makes me feel and not about how their situation makes them feel. Empathy is feeling with that person. It is personal and engaged. Scholars identify four components of empathy: (1) seeing things from the other person’s perspective (e.g., for a fifteen-year-old, a breakup can seem like the end of the world); (2) staying out of judgment (e.g., I don’t get to say that it is silly to care about a breakup so much); (3) recognizing the emotion in the other person (e.g., I need to understand that the fifteen-year-old is feeling rejected, embarrassed, and crushed); and (4) communicating my understanding (i.e., it does not do any good if I think or feel all these things but do not communicate them).

The difference between empathy and sympathy has to do with the effect each one has on the person in pain. “Empathy fuels connection,” according to Brené Brown; “Sympathy drives disconnection.” And “what makes something better is connection.”

Sympathy keeps the other person’s pain at arm’s length, while empathy allows that pain to call up in me a similar experience of pain. It is that feeling shared between people that creates connection. Think of Jesus bending down to talk to the woman caught in adultery (John 8). He does not just scribble on the ground; he is also putting himself at her level. While bent low next to her, he says, “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone” (8:7). Then he stays bent down at her level—literally sharing her lowly state. Only after all the crowds disperse does he straighten up to pronounce judgment: “I do not condemn you.” He literally takes her perspective—her lowly view of the world. Empathy is feeling with someone, not just feeling about them.

Empathy is a vulnerable choice,” Brown reminds us, “because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” Let me confess, empathy is hard for me. I often want to settle for impotent sympathy because I don’t want to remember that I too often felt terrified and powerless. I don’t want those feelings intruding on my day. It makes me vulnerable because it pierces the shell that I maintain to protect myself from pain. But the only way to be truly empathetic is to feel the pain with someone. And the connection that makes empathy so powerful requires me to have your pain conjure up my pain.

There is no connection without that vulnerability. But I am sad to confess that I regularly settle for sympathy rather than empathy. Sympathy makes me feel better, but empathy makes you feel better. It creates the connection that soaks through your pain. There is one more thing we have to say about the connection between empathy and vulnerability.

Empathy cannot want control. This is a particularly hard lesson for me as a dad and as a pastor. If I am listening to my daughter or to someone in my church tell me a story, and if I want them to do something, then I am not listening for the purpose of understanding them. I am listening in order to find ways that I can get them to do what I want them to do. On the other hand, if I choose to listen with empathy, I am vulnerable. I risk not getting the outcome that I want. And that is why a lot of people cannot bring themselves to practice empathy. They are afraid that they might lose something. But if we are to follow Jesus’s example, then we must risk empathy. Empathy cannot want control.

This point is particularly important for those of us interested in recalibrating the church. The most powerful stimulus for such recalibrating is when we are transformed by listening to the longings and losses of the people entrusted to our care. But the moment we want control—and especially the moment that our fears demand control—we lose the ability to feel with people and we shut them down. Let me give an example.

A few years ago, I was working with a church in the Pacific Northwest. Most of the members of the congregation were well over sixty-five, yet there was a small but vibrant contingent of younger adults. The congregation’s leadership (its pastor and its board) decided that they wanted to make the congregation more welcoming to younger adults. So the congregation engaged in a listening exercise designed to get at the longings and losses of the people in and around the congregation. As part of it, a group reported on conversations with the younger adults.

One young man, whom we will call Zack, reported on what he thought was an important insight: the issues that the church counted as important felt out of touch to people his age. He gently suggested that some other issues were a regular part of conversations among Zack’s age group and might feel not just out of place but even threatening to the older adults in the congregation.

One older woman compassionately asked for an example. Zack said he felt uncomfortable even giving an example because he thought that the phrases might set people off. The compassionate woman pressed him (“Tell me more . . .”) and empathetically told him that the whole point of the project was to listen to things the church needed to hear.

So Zack took a deep breath. Then he said that a normal conversation among people his age might include the phrase “gender fluidity.” Someone immediately said, without judgment, “I’m afraid I don’t know what that means.” So Zack started to explain the term and why it expressed a longing or loss for his people.

But before he could really get started, an elder cut him off. “That sounds like something that is the culture of this world,” the elder erupted. “There are two worldviews opposing each other—the kingdom of God and the culture of this world.” At first Zack thought he might get to explain himself when the elder had ceased his interruption. But the elder spent fifteen minutes railing about how dangerous it was to adopt “the culture of this world.” He just kept talking until Zack gave up any hope of explaining himself.

Zack had begun by reporting that there were phrases so threatening that he feared his congregation could not handle them. Before he could finish explaining what he meant, the elder proved his point. Zack’s intention had not been to advocate for “gender fluidity” or to oppose it. He was making a more basic point.

He worried that, if he invited people his age to visit the congregation and to talk about what kept them awake at night, then the congregation would have such a great need to control the conversation that the congregants would not be able to listen with compassion. Because the elder proved him right, neither Zack nor any of his friends ever really offered anything substantive to the strategic conversation again. It was not safe. Empathy cannot want such control of others.

Empathy is inviting. The opposite of shutting down a conversation is to invite it to go deeper. The Fuller Youth Institute summarizes the commitment to listening with the phrase, “Tell me more . . .”31 Whenever a Christian leader does not know what else to say, whenever I hear someone start to reveal something that is hard, whenever someone says something that hits me, the simple response is an invitation: “Tell me more . . .” All leaders need to put themselves in positions where people are telling stories from their lives. This gives leaders a holy opportunity to invite that person into deeper conversation. Even if leaders find that what a person says is disturbing (such as the elder who could not stomach even the phrase “gender fluidity”), the best instinctive response is to invite the person to say more. And that leads us to the last characteristic of empathy.

Empathy is never judgmental. The prevailing stereotype of the church out in the culture is that we Christians are judgmental. For example, one survey found that almost nine out of ten young adults who do not go to church see Christians as judgmental.

We see exactly what judgmental means when we contrast Jesus with the Pharisees. Jesus had compassion on people, even when they were wrong. He was gentle with the woman at the well (John 4) and the woman caught in adultery (John 8). Notice that, in both encounters, Jesus did not ignore sin. But he was gentle and kind. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were condescending and ruthless. That is, unfortunately, how many people outside the church experience those of us who represent Jesus. They see us as judgmental. But there is likely a reason why we Christians end up acting like Pharisees: we insulate ourselves from other people’s pain because empathy makes us vulnerable.

Empathy will transform us. If we allow the longings and losses of our people to seep into our souls, then they will call up similar emotions within us. We will begin to identify with the hopes and the fears that our people feel every day. We will see things from their perspective. And then we will no longer be able to sit in condescending judgment. By feeling with people, we step into their shoes. And that will transform us.

So we must listen with empathy. Empathy is feeling with someone. Empathy is a vulnerable choice. Empathy cannot want control of others. Empathy is inviting. Empathy is never judgmental. If you practice this kind of empathetic listening, empathy will transform you.

Dr. Scott Cormode is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and is the Hugh De Pree Associate Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Seminary. The Hugh De Pree faculty chair was established by the family of the late Hugh De Pree, an accomplished leader and former CEO of Herman Miller, Inc., and brother of Max De Pree.

Scott Cormode

Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership, Senior Fellow

Senior Fellow De Pree Center Hugh De Pree Associate Professor of Leadership Development Fuller Theological Seminary Scott Cormode, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and is the Hugh De Pree Associate Pr...

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