We sat across from one another sharing a bowl of queso. A mutual affection for cheese dip is where every true connection begins. We both were coming out from under the fog of a major life change. We had packed up our lives, set out to pursue a fresh start, moved to a new city and, naturally, were in need of new friends.
It was a “friend date.” You know the setting well: The dinner, coffee and happy hour meet ups with someone new. You get together wanting to connect, build trust, share history, laugh a little, and hopefully experience the birth of a new friendship. These first friend dates can often feel like an overwhelming amount of ground to cover and a whole lot of heart to uncover. There’s risk involved.
Will vulnerability breed a mutual connection?
We each shared a bit of our story. We talked about things like family, upbringing, work history, passions, moves around the country, etc. Then, we began to open up about what led us to shake up our norm and move to a newfound city. Eventually, the painful details of my queso companion’s current situation began to surface. With tears in my eyes, my heart began to race as she told me more about the season of hurt, pain, disappointment and heartbreak she was experiencing.
I hadn’t been in her exact shoes, but I had certainly experienced a close enough version of her story. Suddenly, I found myself with the ability to physically feel the pain of my past experiences all over again. The shattering of her heart was something I could not only imagine, but a circumstance I could feel with my entire being. I looked across the table and felt like I could ‘see’ this person in a deeper way than I ever dreamt possible, all in a mere 30-minute interaction.
It was as though my past had given me the ability to not only feel her presence, but to speak into it with some kind of supernatural authority. I found myself encouraging her with the hope that had been instilled in me through others in the past.
This is empathy: a transferring of belief. It’s that which takes place when you are able to not only listen to someone’s story, but you can physically place yourself where they are, because you’ve been there before. You’ve walked through the fire, cried the river of tears, asked all the same questions and believed all the same lies. You’ve doubted and wondered, how will I ever make it through? You’ve relied on others to be present, listen, encourage and remind you of truth.
When we let empathy take the lead, we start to see the world in a whole new way and this changes everything about the way we live our lives.
Then, one day you look up and realize you’ve conquered what you once thought impossible … but not without help. You didn’t go through hardship simply to look back and tell a good story. It’s through these very circumstances that you were given the unique ability to feel deeper than you ever imagined, to see the broken like never before and to believe for others when they may not have the strength to believe for themselves. When we let empathy take the lead, we start to see the world in a whole new way and this changes everything about the way we live our lives.
Empathy affects the way we engage with others.
The best way we can begin to foster empathy is to intentionally go deep with people. Relationships don’t form through happenstance. We are drawn to those who have gone before us. Empathy is the pulling towards another’s pain and this is what allows us to deeply connect.
Empathy affects the way we lead.
It can become one of the greatest strengths of a leader. Leading with empathy allows you to lead from a place of humility rather than pride. In the end, a leader who has experienced pain has become better for it and one of the greatest qualities of leadership is the ability to see and care for people as individuals.
Empathy changes the way we see our circumstances.
When we are able to look at our lives and see all that we’ve gained from the difficult times, it changes everything about the way we view the present. Hardship has the ability to shape the person you’ve become and empathy has a way of amplifying your calling.
However, we must be careful with tossing around the phrase “I understand.” We might be tempted to say this to someone going through a season of hurt, pain or loss like singleness, infertility, illness, marriage struggles, etc., but if we haven’t experienced this type of pain, then sometimes it’s better to acknowledge our lack of understanding. The best way to bring value to someone experiencing something you haven’t endured is by acknowledging their pain while assuring them that they are seen, loved and cared about.
The best way to bring value to someone experiencing something you haven’t endured is by acknowledging their pain while assuring them that they are seen, loved and cared about.
When I think back to dinner, I see more than the birth of a new friendship. I see vulnerability fostering a place of connection. I see empathy taking the lead, further healing and, ultimately, the revelation of the need for belief on both sides of the booth. One side with the need to practice believing for another, and the other side in need for the belief of another to carry her through.
Empathy just might be one of the most powerful things we have to offer humanity. Don’t rush the process of your pain. It is through these experiences that we become deeply rooted in hope. The only way out is through – and the only way through is to be with and believe for one another.
Images via Adam Dahir