333 – Empathy is Not Coddling

This Week on Soul Talks

Sometimes considered weakness or coddling, empathy is often misunderstood. We may not think we need empathy, and we may underestimate its value in our relationships. Yet empathy is a major key to our growth, our intimacy with Christ,  and our ministry with others. 

In this episode of Soul Talks, Bill and Kristi unpack empathy and the role it plays in relationships. Tune in to see how, as you receive the empathy the Lord has for you, there is healing and grace. Then, you can do the same for others as you respond to them with this same empathy and grace!

Resources for this Episode:

Empathy is Not Coddling Transcript

Bill and Kristi Gaultiere

 

Kristi

Hi friends, thanks for joining Bill and I on this Soul Talk. 

We’re so grateful to God for you. We love it when we get to be with you, and when we get to hear from you.

Thank you for continuing to follow Jesus with us.

Thank you for pressing close to have growth in his likeness and in healthy community with each other, as well as taking these things that you’re learning and practicing them in your life and in your ministry. 

We’re so grateful. And we learn from you, too. So we love to hear from you. 

We are going to talk today a little bit more about empathy. 

This is something that we talk a lot about. 

We find, especially when we’re leading our Institutes or trainings, that this tends to come out because we find so many people either have just totally and completely not understood it or kind of relegated it. 

It’s been something that’s kind of weak or even impotent, or just for weak or emotional people.

Or maybe, it is just not something that is vital for them. Or it is not something that even they feel they need or would want.

Maybe they would even feel uncomfortable with thinking that they would need to receive empathy.

Empathy is Key in Shepherding Souls

Bill

Yeah. So at Soul Shepherding, we really live in the intersection of faith and feelings.

That specialty has just developed more and more over time, as we’re just constantly hearing from people, 

Teach us more about empathy, teach us more about emotional health. Teach us more about how to deal with the stress and hurts and pains and difficulties of life as it relates to our discipleship to Jesus and our leadership.

It’s one of the top takeaways that our students receive from our Soul Shepherding Institute, and certainly from our Spiritual Direction Certificate program, and our new Coaching Certificate program.

All really emphasize empathy as part of the process of shepherding someone. 

That’s one of our distinctives in how we do spiritual direction — not maybe the stereotypical sort of contemplative approach, although we certainly value quiet prayer.

We’re certainly providing prayer for listening to people and seeking to cultivate intimacy with Jesus, which is our top core value.

But empathy is our second core value, right after intimacy with Jesus. 

So we just really feel like in any conversation related to growth or getting help or discipleship, or when you’ve got something you’re struggling with, it’s really important that there is empathy built into that. 

Any leadership conversation, any family conversation — conversations, relationships, projects, and work— go so much better when we give each other empathy.

Yet not many people really know how to do that well.

Or even if they have learned some of the skills of active listening, it’s difficult to practice that effectively.

The reason is because empathy is something that has to be in you to come out of you.

Kristi

It’s a form of love and grace.

It’s a way to give and communicate love and grace to another person and to receive it from another person, and even from God.

Compassion Needs to Be Rooted in Empathy

Bill

But some people say, “Well, empathy? This is coddling.”

There was even a book written against empathy, which is just an amazing thing.

In looking at that book, the author is really against rescuing, enabling, sympathy, and pity. 

That’s really what he’s against. 

He’s using the word empathy to mean those things, but that’s really not what empathy is.

In the book, what is stressed is the value of compassion.

Of course, compassion is an amazingly important and integral aspect of love. 

It’s a Bible word. Compassion is all over the place in the Bible. 

Empathy is a newer word that comes out of modern psychotherapy. 

For compassion to be effective, healing, giving somebody dignity and empowering them, it needs to be rooted in empathy.

It needs to be rooted in a tender-hearted understanding about someone’s emotions, needs challenges, and opportunities. 

Because if we rush into actions of compassion, which we feel for somebody, but it’s not based in accurate empathy about what they actually need and what actually is best for them, we can do harm.

That’s actually where our compassion can be enabling of irresponsibility, disempowering of someone, or rescuing.

Or it can be an expression of sympathy that’s really more about, “I want to feel good about myself in responding to this problem.” 

But empathy is what makes it on point with being a true expression of loving intervention, loving helpfulness for somebody.

Empathy is Powerful

Kristi

I think a lot of people think of empathy as being something that’s weak or bad to need. 

They think of it as being something that only weak people need — that it isn’t good to need and that you shouldn’t need. 

But my experience both personally, in ministry, and as a therapist as a doctor of psychology with my clients, is that empathy’s actually very powerful. 

It’s not weak at all. 

It is not its counterfeit of self-pity, or pity that is this coddling or this fragilizing of someone. 

That’s not what true empathy is. True empathy deals with reality.

Bill

Yeah, because when you give somebody empathy, you’re giving back to them their emotion, their problem, their need, or the challenge that they’re dealing with in their life. 

You’re using your words to express your understanding of what they’re experiencing.

Kristi

It’s giving them dignity because it’s validating their experience.

Bill

Then with that validation, with that understanding, comes the responsibility to take ownership of that and to take some positive steps to deal with their life.

Because empathy in effect says, “I care for you. Here’s what I’m understanding you’re experiencing. I want to help you carry this load, this weight. I don’t want you to be alone with this. I want to support you. And it’s your problem.” 

There’s a hard line that’s in empathy that says, “Well, I’m not fixing this for you. I’m caring for you as you fix this.”

Kristi

Right.

Empathy and Tough Love

Bill

So there really is a tough love part of empathy that I don’t think people really see.

Implicit in good empathy is boundaries that you and I are different people, and we have different emotions, different needs, different personalities, and different lives to lead.

But we’re coming together in this conversation, or in this project, or in our relationship. 

So empathy is very much the heart glue there that helps us really have that warmth and that bond.

Healthy and loving empathy is not rescuing or coddling or enabling. 

It’s actually giving someone responsibility to deal with their life.

Kristi

That’s really important to say, because the all-or-nothings in life and in relating are just easier for us. 

We want to just kind of be tough and disciplinarian, and kind of push somebody to do what they need to do to take responsibility for something. 

Sometimes in order to make us do that, we kind of callous our heart against them. 

Even as a parent, I remember the temptation to kind of callous my heart for my child in order to discipline them in the way they needed the discipline. 

But it was always better if I could discipline them in love, with some empathy, and show them that I care. And that I’m sad for them.

But that it doesn’t change the consequence of their behavior.

Bill

Yeah.

Giving somebody feedback could include speaking the truth in love, a parent pointing out to a child —as you’re saying — a misbehavior that was irresponsible or unloving for someone in the family, or not doing their part to clean up, or whatever the case might be.

Giving that feedback is going to come better if it comes from a place of a tender heart, that’s trying to understand what that child is feeling or what that person is feeling.

Empathy Versus Fixing

Kristi

It’s that whole adage that “I don’t care what you know, unless I know that you care.” 

That’s true in instruction and discipline and marriage. 

I often talk about how early on in our marriage, I would share with you what I was feeling, and you would tell me what to do to fix it.

I would feel insulted because I knew what to do to fix it. I just needed to know you cared and I wasn’t alone. 

I just needed some empathy to get the strength to get up and do what I needed to do.

Bill

Yeah. 

I’m sad about that in hindsight. 

Occasionally I fall back into that because I’m a thinker and I have lots of insights about things. 

So sometimes I give that advice that’s coming up short of the need for understanding and care. 

We who are teachers, counselors, and parents need to be careful about that.

Because even when we have good advice, it’s way secondary to providing warmth, understanding, acceptance, and grace which are facilitated really well with empathetic listening and reflecting back the feelings that somebody seems to be having.

Asking good questions where we’re curious. 

These expressions of empathy really add warmth to a relationship and help people feel cared for.

Whatever it is that we’re working on, whatever it is that we’re hoping people will learn from us, whatever relationship we’re in, empathy is going to help make it go better.

Kristi

But don’t you think there’s still people that are thinking, “Yeah, but that’s just soft. You’re just being too soft. You’re just making people weak if you make them expect that they need empathy.” 

I know you, you’re not soft. You’re not soft, but you are loving. 

At some point the switch triggered for you early on, and you realized how important empathy was, and how truly loving empathy was. 

You saw the power in it. 

At some point you switched into seeing it’s not weak. 

It’s not weak to ask for it and need it and want it. And it’s not weak to offer it to someone. 

It’s not coddling. It’s not rescuing.

Bill

Well, my strength is my thinking, my ideas, and my insights about life and faith and relationships, so I have things to teach people.

Whether it’s our kids, students in our Institute, clients that I’m providing coaching to, our staff, or anybody that’s talking to me, I’m going to have ideas about what they’re saying.

But I learned that what was going to be most helpful for them — what was going to be most powerful for them — was if I held back my ideas, my thoughts, my advice, and I focused first on really understanding, really listening, asking questions, and really providing care. 

That actually the best ideas that people get for their life and their work are their own.

The insights that someone comes to — really with God’s help when they’re being listened to — are much more sticky for people than the advice that we give to them. 

Kristi

So you saw that as you would listen empathetically with people, and join them in their experience through empathy, they would find that strength to wake up to what they actually know.

Invitation to Empathy

Bill

Yes. And that’s true in our teaching ministry, in our Soul Shepherding Institute

For those of you that haven’t been to our Soul Shepherding Institute, we want to invite you. 

We would love to have you come! 

Even if you just try one of the weeks, they are five-day retreats.

They are meant to be practiced 1, 2, 3, 4 in a sequence of four retreats over the course of two years. 

Or you can fast track and go and jump into some different cohorts and get through faster than two years. 

Most people do it in the cohort model and take one five-day retreat every six months. 

But even if you just came to one retreat, we always have some guests and we’re happy to have you for that. 

You’ll probably decide you want to do the rest of them, because most people do. 

During each of the five days, we have two teaching sessions. 

But even within those teaching sessions that are an hour and a half long, we don’t just lecture the whole hour and a half normally. 

Usually most of that time is what we call Squeeze the Sponge question and answer. 

That’s because that’s where the best learning happens.

When people can ask their question — express their situation in their life, their family, their ministry, their leadership — and be heard, be understood, and be valued in that. 

Then we have some conversation about how to deal with that situation and that is way more sticky for people. 

Then in addition, when people share their reviews about what their takeaways were and what was helpful for them about the Soul Shepherding Institute, so often it’s the spiritual direction session I had with your staff person. 

Or it was this spiritual direction process group that I was in that you led.

Or the way you responded to this question.

Or it was my TLC time for five hours where I was reflecting, and I was going through the retreat notebook and doing that exercise.  

Thinking about what we were talking about in the last session and praying about that, and the Lord just spoke to my heart. 

So the ways the life changing insights come, it’s not that often in a lecture.  Or even if it is, that’s really only just part of it. 

We need these relational process experiences where we’re receiving empathy and someone’s praying for us. 

We need times of experience where we practice things, we do things, we try them out, we journal things, and we pray about them. 

So empathy is involved in all of that because God cares about what we feel. 

He cares about what we’re struggling with when we sin — that it’s hurtful to other people and to us, and God has empathy for that. 

That way of listening, understanding, caring, and the curious questions help us to receive the life changing truths of the gospel, and all the different things that the Bible teaches us.

Kristi

We really think that compassion comes out of empathy.

Because if you’re really truly empathizing with someone, and you’re really truly understanding them, then if God calls you to do something — to act in some way — you’re going to be acting with a compassion that’s responsive to what the real need is. 

If we just act with a compassion based on what we think the need is, it could be a miss. 

I think that’s one of the things that we learned also early in our relationship with each other.  

That as we came to embrace empathy and to listen with empathy, we really grew in our understanding of what the other really needed.

Empathy Brings Freedom

Bill

Yeah. We’re just hearing this from people all the time. 

So one example, a pastor said to us that in the Institute he experienced a very, very safe place, a secure attachment in relationships with us and others. 

This is something rare for him. 

He said the empathy that he experienced is so good and even a little disorienting because he’s used to receiving, from his own self or from other people, accusations, excuses, blame, and withdrawal. 

He says, “Empathy opens my heart to God, to others, to my wife, and to my kids.” 

He’s admitted, “I’ve been so angry and feeling as if I can’t share my deeper feelings, except I get angry about stuff.” 

He doesn’t want to be angry because he doesn’t want to hurt people.

He doesn’t want to criticize people. 

He doesn’t want to judge people, and doesn’t want to put pressure on people. 

He wants to be gracious. 

Because the main emotion he feels is anger, he just shuts all of his emotions down and tries not to be emotional. 

But then he realized that just gets depressing and he loses energy. 

In his relationships, there is not the same intimacy there.

Even in his ministry, his teaching isn’t as effective as it could be. 

So he’s seeing a whole different — not just seeing, but experiencing — a whole different paradigm for his relationships with people and with God.  

This centers around empathetic understanding, and expressions of what’s really going on in life, and empathizing with the anger. 

But also what’s underneath the anger and some of the fear, some of the hurt, and some of the feelings of shame — finding words for that, getting language for that.

Being able to talk about that with his spiritual director, he says is life changing.

Kristi

Yeah.

I’m thinking of a woman last week who shared with us that she had received empathy from you when she shared about her experience in her marriage. 

She was so disarmed by it. 

She was like, “Wow, I’d never received empathy about that. It was so validating and I’d never received it from a man.” 

It was so reparative and so healing to have you validate and empathize with her experience. 

It freed her to be able to forgive her ex-husband.

Just receiving that validation of what her experiences was like, and that empathy she felt from you, then gave her what she needed to be able to get free and forgive.

Empathy Repairs Relationships

Bill

Yeah. It’s such an honor to do that for her, or for anyone.

It’s so fulfilling to see how the Lord uses that offering of empathetic compassion, soft-hearted listening, validation, and just a curiosity — “Well, tell me more about that.”

“Tell me more of what that was like for you and what you felt.”

When people feel heard and cared for in this way, it empowers them.  

It empowers them in this case to forgive, and in other cases to be a better leader, to be a better teacher, and to be a better parent. 

Somebody was talking with us about some parenting challenges last week in our Soul Shepherding Institute retreat — just the nitty gritty of that. 

Then coming to realize that, “Oh, my kids were having some emotions and I didn’t see it. I didn’t empathize with them and I just tried to fix their behavior.  That didn’t go well and they reacted badly. Then I got frustrated.”

It’s like re-doing the whole conversation from the standpoint of, “Okay, let’s talk about what you were feeling as a parent, and as a father there. What were you feeling? Okay. What do you think your kids were feeling?” 

It changes the whole conversation now to pay attention, and to have words for the experience that you’re having in the situation.

It guides the conversation. It guides any teaching. 

It guides the discipline. It guides the repair — you are using the word repair, Kristi.

Empathy is essential to repair when there’s been a hurt in a relationship or some sort of a breach or a problem in the relationship. 

That’s the most important thing we can do in our family relationships, our small groups, our friendships, and our work relationships when there’s been some offense.

Even if it wasn’t intended, just to repair that by saying, “Well, tell me how that felt for you. What was that like for you?” 

And to be able to say, “Gosh, you know, I’m sorry. That was not my intention. It sounds like what you experienced, what you felt there was….. Am I understanding that? Tell me more about that.

That kind of a conversation is healing and it restores and rebuilds trust in partnership, in whatever it is that we’re doing together.

Kristi

It helps us to take courage, then, once we’ve received empathy to then own our part that we do need to grow in, and we do need to acknowledge.

To receive empathy involves having to humble ourselves, and to receive from God through somebody else.

God Has Empathy for Us

Bill

Yeah. So empathy is not coddling. 

It’s actually empowering. 

To be good at empathy you need to be strong in your heart and your soul. 

You need to be strong in your self-awareness. 

It’s not something weak. 

It requires owning your emotions and being responsible with your needs, your problems, your sins, your weaknesses.

Empathy imparts strength to other people because when they become more aware of what they feel and need, and what they’re struggling with, that is the major building block of emotional intelligence.

The largest predictor for success in our work, our relationships, our faith is to be emotionally intelligent. 

So empathy is a great word. 

We’ve even got it in newer translations in the Bible.

Hebrews 4:15-16, We don’t have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but one who is prepared to offer empathy and to give us mercy and grace in our time of need at the throne of grace. 

The holy God is empathetic with us.

Kristi

So friends, we want you to agree with God’s empathy. 

We want you to receive it. 

We want you to receive it from God and through his ambassadors. 

Then we want you to be able to overflow and give it.

Bill

Lord Jesus, thank you for your perfect empathy for each one of us. 

Thank you, Lord, that you call us into love one-another relationships with others in the body of Christ. 

We all want to be friends who offer empathy to others and who receive empathy from others. 

In our family relationships, and our marriages, we pray, Lord, that you would help us to grow in empathy.

Help us to see how much this will help us to grow in our Christ-likeness, to have the empathy of Jesus.

Many of us, Lord, need some experiences with an empathy specialist.

So lead us to a spiritual director or a coach that can provide that empathy, that prayerfulness, that gracious guidance for us in our life, our relationships, our leadership.

Lord, we just pray that if a Soul Shepherding Spiritual Director or Coach would be helpful for our friends listening to us, we pray that you would prompt them to give that a try.

To reach out to us at Soul Shepherding and connect with one of our Senior Spiritual Directors or Senior Coaches.

It’s such an honor, Lord, that we get to do life with our friends listening.

We just pray your best blessings to overflow from your unfailing love for each one and for their family members, friends, and the people that they minister to in Jesus name.

Amen.

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