Saturday, 25 January 2014

Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution

Roman Krznaric has published a new book called Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.

I feel like crying.

Everything that he says is, of course, correct.

We are evolved to develop empathic skills by the age of around three.

Empathy, the art of listening and putting one's self in the place of another, is crucial to conflict resolution, whether in marriage, the workplace or in parenting.

I have myself practised an artificial empathy when trying to prevent myself from screaming at my children — he cites the parenting book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, from which I learnt to stop, look and listen when my children were acting out, and try to understand what they were feeling, through asking them intuitive questions.

Often, in my experience, you can feel what another is feeling by monitoring the tension levels in your own body. If you start to feel stressed and anxious, ten to one it is not your own feeling, but the feelings of someone close by, someone you care about, and someone who is not speaking about their feelings, but transmitting them nonetheless.

Using an empathic technique, especially in situations in which my own feelings have run away with me (pretty much always around something the children are doing — I've learnt to smile over what most adults do), has been a very handy tool. However it also makes me feel controlling, manipulative and unspontaneous, as if I am playing a role. Perhaps I am, and the payoff in reconciliation is worth it. Perhaps I just have to accept that, as a reflexive adult, I can suspend my own emotions while I engage with a child's, even if it's through a learnt technique. The paradox is that you need to be engaged with your emotions in order to intuit another's. So I don't really know how empathy works. If I can act empathic, am I being empathic?

Oddly, my children are very empathic to others, but totally, brutally resistant to my husband and I.

I, like Krznaric, have come to talk to strangers wherever I go, as a conscious metropolitan survival strategy. Since having children, and encountering the way they solicit social engagement wherever they go, I have decided that I want to cash in on their immense optimism and trust. It's a game, like your own personal Happening, or improv. It's precisely because Londoners tend to be very withdrawn and suspicious of social contact, that I have stubbornly brought my provincial roots with me, and gaily make a complete fool of myself, chatting about nonsense on buses, in supermarkets, and in queues. My children are horribly embarrassed by this behaviour, but I persist, because I get a fantastic hit rate of successful responses, smiles, stories and high points in my day.

When I was younger I would, naturally, have edged away from myself.

So it's not that Roman Krznaric is wrong, of course he isn't. What makes me what to cry is that what he is arguing is what is expected, as a matter of course, of women.

Empathic skills have traditionally been foisted on the Fair Sex, particularly on mothers, as their version of having a mind. Not to acknowledge this is to re-write cultural and psychological history, effacing the very contribution demanded of half its participants.

No one is arguing with Krznaric. But equally, no one is listening to mothers.

No comments: