COMMUNICATING EMPATHICALLY

Between what is said and not meant and what is meant and not said, most of love is lost.” ~ Kahlil Gibran

It started when he said we weren’t right for each other but he really wanted to stay in touch while I went off on my travels. It wasn’t a messy ending, no heartbreak or anything like that. So, in the interests of maintaining a friendship, I thought that would be good.

I send a few photo updates of where I am in different places. No response though I can see he’s received the messages. So, I ask, “What’s happening in your world?”  He replies, “Same old same old.”  I think that he’s just brushing off his life as boring because he’s at home and I’m travelling.  But I’m genuinely interested.  I ask some more specific questions about his work and teaching and his children.  He responds with, “I’m just making brunch.”

I feel the brush off and I’m annoyed. He’s the one that asked to stay in touch after all.  I give him a week to ‘make brunch’ and when I still don’t get any answer, I delete his number and decide to move swiftly on.

I also decide that when I return (two months later) that I will be polite when I see him but nothing more. I find myself avoiding a friend’s birthday because I know he will be there.  Clearly I’m angrier than I’m prepared to admit. However, I do see him around town a couple of times and I manage some friendly banter. He offers to buy me a drink at one point to which I reply, with a smile, “Sure, I think that’s the least you can do!”  I can see the fear in his eyes.

Some time later, he’s having a party and he invites me. On the backend of having to cancel my own party and having flu, I explode.

I fire off a filthy email. No filters. “I had resolved to be polite to you should I bump into you in public but if you imagine that we are friends enough for me to come to your birthday party, then you need to man up and give me an explanation face to face.”  etc etc.

He takes two days to respond. He needed to calm down after he read it. Something he says in his reply really catches my attention.

“….perhaps you don’t know how frankly frightening your anger is.”

Now I’m aware that the email I’ve just sent is particularly unpleasant (I apologise to him unreservedly for that) but something in the way he says this makes me realise this isn’t the first time he’s felt this.  During the time we’d been together we’d had to discuss some delicate topics and in my memory I had been particularly careful in my choice of language especially as I had noticed that he could be hypersensitive. Regardless of my care, there had been at least two occasions when his reaction had (in my opinion) been overly dramatic and umbrageous.  Perhaps when I thought I was being careful about my words I wasn’t being careful in the right way.

I was suddenly no longer concerned with wanting to let him know how his behaviour had affected me but more with finding out what I’d said that had triggered him and how I could have said it differently.

He agreed to come over for a chat.  What transpired was quite curious and very insightful. We talked about our last text exchange when I was in India.  He had no recollection of my list of questions and didn’t feel that he had brushed me off at all. However, after further discussion he admitted that actually his response was a reaction.

He could only remember the last line of my text – which I had conveniently forgotten; having shown genuine interest in him and his family, I had ended the text with, “or don’t you want to share?

Now some may think that this is a perfectly acceptable response considering I’d had only one very curt response to all my text messages whilst I was away and he was the one who’d asked to stay in touch.  However, upon reflection, I realised that actually this is quite poky and manipulative language – I was guilt tripping him into a response.

Clearly underlying all of this are several needs:  the need to be heard, the need for connection, the need to be respected and so on.  But my way of expressing this had simply pushed him away.  And curious that I had forgotten that I’d written it?  Maybe I was dissociating from my fear of my needs not being met.  Perhaps a better way to express it would have been, “I know you are busy so no hurry but I am genuinely interested in all of the above when you get the chance to tell me.”  This response would have clearly yet gently expressed my needs whilst giving him the room to take care of his. To do this consistently with everyone I meet, I must first practice self-empathy; consciously connecting to my heart to understand what my needs actually are and then breathing deep as I put myself in their shoes to understand their needs.

Interesting too that we both had different memories of a text message; an exchange clearly in black and white. Obviously we both have a different set of triggers. No doubt everyone does – some people had angry fathers, others cold and distant mothers and so on and so on, each emotional wound leaving its own set of issues.

Furthermore, before he came over, I’d been chatting with a girlfriend about non-violent communication. Neither of us knew much about it in practical terms but we talked about owning our feelings- we choose how we feel about any situation. No-one else can make us feel in any way at all.  They may be a catalyst for certain feelings , but we have the choice in how we respond.  So, when he asked me what it was that I had been upset about, I caught myself saying, “When you did that, you made me feel…” I quickly changed my response and said, “No, YOU didn’t make me feel that way, the situation made me feel that way.”  [the best response would have been, ”in that situation, I felt…”]  I was fascinated to watch his energy literally fizz back down from combative to understanding.  Semantics are very powerful indeed.

Some time later my brother and I were talking on the telephone. He’d arranged a party for my niece’s 18th and was upset when I told him that mum (who’s in her 80s) had decided to meet us all at the older niece’s university a week before for a more personal family lunch to celebrate the birthday.  And since I would be driving a long way to pick her up, take her there and back, before heading home (we all live a good two hour drive away from each other) and paying for a hotel, I wouldn’t be able to go the following weekend to the party.  He was furious.  He screamed down the phone, “She’ll be really upset if you don’t come. Just get your priorities right!” and slammed the phone down on me.

I just managed to catch myself before I fired off an angry text message saying that I do have my priorities right and they are our mother and so on and so forth.  In that moment I stopped to breathe, I burst into tears. Speaking and listening with empathy involves the first most important step of self-empathy; actually connecting in with our own feelings and the needs underlying those feelings.  Once you have done that, you are in with a much better chance of expressing yourself in a way that will create a real connection between you and the other person.

In this case, what was it I wanted to say? I felt unseen and unappreciated. I certainly didn’t want to be guilt tripped into going to the party.  My niece has just turned 18 and I was quite sure that she wouldn’t be in the least bit bothered that her 45 year old aunty wasn’t at her party.  Over the next couple of weeks, I came to realise that my niece wasn’t really involved in organising the party at all but it was in fact my brother and so I understood that his hurt feelings were because he wanted me to see what a great party he could organise.

I still felt unable to clearly express my needs in this situation however. I really had thought about it several times but couldn’t quite frame it all let alone express it.  It wasn’t until I went to a NVC (non-violent communication) workshop and we did an exercise in self-empathy.  Putting my mind into the situation with my brother, I stood with my eyes closed and both hands on my heart.  What came up was, “I feel hurt. It seems that you don’t care about my needs to look after my finances. It seems that you don’t appreciate that for me our mother comes first. Most of all I feel sad. That we don’t have a connection.”

This was the first time I have ever acknowledged this.  For years I have dismissed my relationship with my brother, simply saying that we are both completely different. I have found it hard to trust him or to feel completely secure in his company.  However, this is the first time that I had recognised my sadness at the loss of our connection. And it is  this sadness that was underlying all the other emotions in our telephone exchange.  Now that I have seen this, it would be unimaginable, completely contrary to reason, in fact, for me to react to him with anger.

I think of all those emails I’ve written in the past where a tricky situation has needed to be discussed and so as to make sure I haven’t said anything out of anger in the heat of the moment, I have taken the time to write it all down, editing and re-editing as necessary. And then when the email is received, the other person has somehow latched onto one badly phrased line in the whole email and completely ignored the rest, making me frustrated and angry that they could be so petulant and childish.

However, if I don’t work on that one line to get it right, it’s me that’s wasting my own time and hard work. It’s my own fault that all my words of love and kindness fall on deaf ears because of that one loaded line.

There are patterns that keep repeating, particularly in relationships with lovers and close family members that are detrimental to those relationships.  I want to change those patterns for the better.  Only through seeing and accepting my responsibility for my part in every dialogue I have, and learning to reframe the way in which I respond to situations will this be possible. I have found that working with the flower spirits has been incredibly beneficial in this process and it is a work in progress.  But the future is bright. ॐ