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Creating the conditions for empathy

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019

By Sharona Halpern

In New England, we are in our final days of summer. Every day of blue skies and summer breezes feels like a gift.  I am happy that my windows are still wide open most of the time.

A few years ago, a group from GISC spent a day with Laura Chasin, a family therapist, and a colleague and friend of the Nevis’.  She introduced us to the Public Conversations Project, a program she founded in 1989, which applies tools from family therapy to facilitating dialogue between groups who have opposing political perspectives and views. The methodology is simple and user friendly. It requires a facilitator to hold the space and structure, establish agreements among the participants that support uninterrupted expression of ideas, one at a time, and sets an underlying rule that no one tries to persuade or convince the other party. (If you want to know more, look up Public Conversations Project)

In my work, I am often asked to intervene in conflict situations. This summer, a couple I had been seeing for awhile arrived for their session stuck in a contentious conflict. They had a big decision to make that impacted them both, and that they were experiencing from opposing viewpoints. They reported that at home they had debated the issue, and found themselves feeling angry and misunderstood. I thought about the Public Conversations Project, and suggested an experiment. I set the expectations: The outcome of the decision would be set aside. No persuasion or challenge to the other point of view was allowed. Each person would have a chance to speak. After they spoke, we would pause. The listener could then ask questions that were exclusively meant to clarify or deepen their understanding of the other’s point of view and feelings. They did the experiment. When we debriefed it, they talked about feeling noticeably softer toward the other. They were surprised, since they came in feeling so defensive, stuck and hopeless. In our next session, I was not surprised to learn that they had made a decision, and that they were living pretty well with it, despite the fact that someone had to be disappointed.

Lately, I have been thinking that much of my work with couples, and with teams experiencing conflict, is about creating the conditions for empathy. I think most of us believe that empathy is the entry point to the solution to our personal and political conflicts. However, empathy gets lost when we are scared, disappointed or angry. Most of us know what having empathy feels like, and we know what it feels like when we lose it, when we are in conflict. We fight to be understood but don’t often fight as hard to be understanding. The assumption that the other wants to understand us as much as we want to  be understood, requires a great deal of support and trust. In our work, we can provide that support and framework, helping people move through conflict toward empathy. I find this part of my work important and satisfying.

A few words about what is coming up at GISC, and in particular in CCTP. We are excited to be offering a Fourth Week (for the first time!) in London, November 8-12. If you have taken CCTP and taken the Third Week, please consider joining us, to deepen your learning and practice of the Cape Cod Model. If you have not taken the Third Week, please contact us, as the Third Week is not necessarily required to participate in the Fourth. We are also planning the next Third Week for Spring 2020. Let us know soon if you are interested, as The Third Week has consistently sold out. Talk to someone who has participated to find out more, and of course, write or call any of the faculty for more information. We are always glad to hear from you.

Warmly,

Sharona (on behalf of Joe, Carol, Stuart and Nancy)

Conversations with Sonia and Joe: Messing Up

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Conversations with Sonia and Joe

Over the past 30 years we have enjoyed many conversations around everyday experiences. Some of these conversations have been turned into articles around such topics as intimacy, contempt, love, commitment, power, surprise, jealousy, desire, ethics and optimism. Others sit half-finished in the back of a filing cabinet, while even more have never made it into writing, having instead faded into the air as our interest waned. Yet, no matter the outcome, these conversations have been immensely satisfying to us.

We would like to expand these conversations beyond the two of us by sharing some of them with you, and hearing back regarding your observations, thoughts, feelings and personal experiences. 

Please join the conversation by posting your comments below.  We would love to hear your thoughts.

Sonia March Nevis and Joseph Melnick

Messing Up

Even the best of us messes up often. To turn against ourselves after we mess up is rarely useful. A competent person knows that these things are ordinary and that the next day will bring new mess ups, but, every once in a while, we have a perfect day.

Joe:  I remember years ago you saying that it doesn’t do me any good to feel bad once I’ve messed up. If I wished to feel bad, I should have felt bad before I messed up, not after.

Sonia:  Yes, people turn on themselves rather than saying, “You know I was a jerk that time; I don’t know why I didn’t do that.” Anything that helps put it out, spit it out in an easy way. Knowing that it is a part of life—neither good nor bad.

Joe:  Yes, I can look at almost anything I’ve done and find a hundred ways that I could have done it better.

Sonia:  Yes, me too.

Joe:  We don’t appreciate the ordinariness of messing up.

Sonia:  I think that’s the right language. It’s a waste to put yourself down for almost any reason whatsoever. Now, of course, there are exceptions and extremes, but most people are talking about simple ordinary things. They forgot to do something, they were told not to do something and they are doing it anyway. Or they didn’t invite somebody to a party. We are full of that stuff all the time.

Joe:  Yes. I forgot their name and I feel so badly, or everyone is dressed a certain way and I’m not, or your zipper is open.

Sonia:  Or you fart. There’s always something.

Joe:  We learn to feel bad early. Maybe it’s a need to be perfect. To be more than who I am.

Sonia:  If there are any medals to be given, they should go to people who say, “Whoops, I’m sorry.”

Joe:  I remember when we were kids and we would say, “so sue me, or shoot me.” Kids have ways to brush it off because they mess up so often.

Sonia:  It is important to teach kids to learn to not feel too bad. It’s amazing how people can be humiliated over simple things—like mispronouncing my name.

Joe:  People will often collapse.

Sonia:  I allow my kids to feel bad over mistakes, like saying, “no, you did something wrong.” I think the goal is to not put it on ourselves or on others; to just put it out without judgment. The only way to get rid of it is to put it out in the air—not to take it in and not to blame others. We have to teach people that there is nobody walking around who’s perfect. There’s always someone better. That doesn’t make you bad.

Joe:  I remember working with a couple and I told her she was entitled to feel this bad [spreads his hands 6 inches], but not this bad [spreads his hands two feet]. She looked stunned. It’s as if she didn’t know that she had a choice. She had a choice of how bad to feel. I’ve sometimes asked people, “How long do you want to feel bad for?”

Sonia:  You can feel badly and hold it in or you can put it out. The other thing you can do is to apologize so you can join with someone.

Sonia:  I like that because it is a matter of acknowledging that most of life is still not this [spreads hands wide]. Many people feel terrible even though they have not done a terrible thing.

Joe:  But suppose there is not another person. l suppose I could apologize to myself.

Sonia:  I often laugh at myself.

Joe:  I remember what they do in a lot of parent-training courses. They tell you to tell your kid, “I’m not angry with you, I’m angry with your behavior—that you stole the milk.” I doubt kids believe that. I know two parents who, when their young kids misbehave, have them put their doll into “doll jail” for a time out.

Sonia:  The opposite is also true. We work with people who don’t feel bad when they should. They blame the others and, of course, these are the most difficult.

Joe:  Yes, these are the ones for whom life never changes. We have to learn to own our mistakes, but learn to carry them lightly.

Please leave your comments below.

   
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