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Christian Counseling - Empathy

The essence of who we are is covered by a gloriously created human body. But, this same body acts as a boundary, which leaves us all profoundly disconnected and isolated. As social creatures, we repeatedly attempt to connect with others through verbal and nonverbal communication and physical touch, as well as indirectly through fantasy.

Many people know the calming, sometimes teary-eyed effect of having someone deeply understand and share our thoughts and feelings. This empathy may be rare, but it is not easily forgotten, and it leaves most of us wanting more, except for those who have a powerful desire to be in control and find empathy threatening.

Even though God knows exactly what we feel and think, we don't get the sensory input directly from Him, as we do with others. We need the experience of hearing understanding words and feeling someone's touch. God knows this, and gave us each other. Adam was lonely and needed Eve. God desires to emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and physically touch others through His body, the church, you and me. We are His arms and His voice.

One of the best ways He is served, honored and glorified and shows forth His love is when we are empathetic to one another. But, if you lack this ability or it is underdeveloped, take heart, you can change. Here are two things about empathy you need to know and practice:

1. Empathy always begins with listening closely to all that a person says and looking to underlying thoughts and feelings that were not expressed. Understanding and attending to the central reason for the communication is crucial to empathizing. For example, Barbara says to her late-for-dinner husband, "Why didn't you call me? Your dinner is on the stove. I already ate." What he shouldn't say is, "Oh, I am sorry, I had a last minute project that I had to take care of, and traffic was worse than usual." He is not attending to her words or her underlying feelings, but providing a rationale for his behavior. It would be better to say, "Please give me a moment to respond to you." Then ask himself what is it that's deeply bothering her? Depending on the tone of her words, she may be disappointed, frustrated and/or worried. Once he believes he understands her he could say, "You took the trouble of making dinner for me. The least I could have done was call, instead of treating you as less important than my work." Agreeing with her assessment that he should have called and the "less important than my work" is the empathetic balm that will help heal the minor issue at hand and the greater underlying conflict.

2. To understand another's underlying or unspoken thoughts, feelings and wishes, he needs to evaluate her word's and tone. Next, he attaches meaning and significance to those words and asks himself what was not said, such as feelings. Empathy's next step requires him to be in touch with himself and ask how he would feel in that situation. This forms a base for empathetic understanding, but he isn't finished yet. He must modify that base of understanding according to what he understands about her general needs, wants, personality, etc. How he feels and she feels is not going to be exactly the same. Lastly, he checks out with her what he believes to be the central issue. Her response will guide him. This deeper work of empathy must continue, at least until there is a lessening or calming of her feelings, questions and thoughts. Feeling comforted, she may be ready to hear what unavoidably delayed him or his apology.

Proverbs 4:7 '"The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom; and with all your acquiring, get understanding."'

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