Speaking of empathy

Practicing outside

After reading the review of Faber and Mazlish’s book on parent-child communication, I wondered if one of the hidden keys to strengthening our side of the Suzuki triangle is the misunderstood act of empathy.

Empathy is misunderstood because it is regarded as a state of mind. Of course it comes from a state of mind; but it is more than that. Empathy isn’t feeling sorry for someone. That’s pity. And it’s not feeling the same way as someone else; that’s sympathy. Empathy comes from a deep understanding of what another person is feeling.

“But”, you ask, “I thought empathy wasn’t just a state of mind.” Here’s the key: it comes from an understanding of what another person is feeling. How do you get to that understanding?

You listen and ask questions. Empathy is active. If you are imagining the way another person feels, you are probably doing more projection - projecting your own feelings onto another person. Maybe you’re right. Maybe you’re not. The only way to know is to listen and ask. Most people - kids, adults, anyone - want to be understood accurately. Since none of us are mind-readers, one way to do that is by offering hypotheticals.

“I imagine that if I had a big recital coming up, I’d be pretty nervous. How are you feeling about it?”

You just float an idea - a hypothesis - about what the child might be feeling, and see what she has to say.

Finally, there was an old personal development book from the 1990’s by Stephen Covey “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” In his book, Covey writes about the habit of empathy. I’m not sure he used the word empathy; but his habit of “seek first to understand, then be understood” is empathic communication. It’s a habit that Suzuki parents should cultivate because it’s the key that unlocks a lot of difficulties that we encounter in the practice room. And because it helps us relate to our children in a more authentic way.