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The Amazing Power of Empathy

The Amazing Power of Empathy

Here’s a story that really hits home with me. It proves that empathy works with all of us. It’s also a good reminder that a little empathy can go a long way, whether we use it with kids or adults.

I went to my local hardware store and bought the latest gizmo.  When I got home, I tried to use it but it didn’t work.  I thought to myself, “Oh man! I couldn’t wait to use this thing! Now it won’t even work.”  I was so frustrated that all I wanted to do was go back to the store, confront the clerk, and demand to know what he was going to do about it!

Before I go further with this story, we should talk about how the brain works. There are several parts of the brain, including the frontal cortex where thinking takes place.  Another part is the brain stem where the “fight or flight” response resides. That’s our defensive mode. We also have a little switch somewhere in the brain that reacts to stimuli. This switch focuses brain energy either into the frontal cortex or the brain stem, depending on what’s needed at the moment. This “brain switch” is a threat receptor. When it activates the brain stem, what happens to the thinking process?  It shuts down so we can either fight quicker or flee quicker.

Back to my story.  There I am at the store with this great gizmo that doesn’t work.  My frustration level is pretty high and I say, “This gizmo doesn’t work!” Which part of my brain is activated if the clerk says the following?

“Of course it didn’t work! I bet you didn’t read the instructions, did you? You guys take this stuff home and start messing with it before reading the instructions.  Then it gets all messed up and you come here thinking that you can just return it.  I’m sick and tired of this and I won’t….”

What part of my brain is operational?  A clerk behaving this way would surely turn me into a brain stem. How long would it be before I said something that turned the clerk into a brain stem, too?  Then we’d have two walking, talking brain stems trying to solve a problem. Not good!  Would I ever shop at this store again? Not a chance!  Do you think I’d tell all my friends, neighbors, and anyone who’d listen? You bet—I’d tell everyone not to shop there!

Has something like this ever happened to you? How much does it take to get the average person into brain stem mode?  Will a little criticism do?  How about some threats?  How about some anger on our part?  All of these can put us into brain stem, fighting mode!

Let’s play it over again, because in reality I was dealing with a highly skilled clerk who’d been to customer service training.  I went back and said, “This gizmo doesn’t work!”  With care and sincerity, he responded, “Oh, that’s never good.”  What part of my brain was activated? The frontal cortex—the thinking mode.

The clerk took the gizmo, apologized for my inconvenience, and offered to refund my money. Now he had a customer for life.  And whenever I go to that store, you know which clerk I’m looking for.  Do you think I’ll ever shop at that store again? You bet I will! Do you think I’ll tell all of my friends and neighbors about that store and that clerk? You bet.

We have discovered that people who get children to see themselves as the source of their problem provide sincere empathy before describing any consequences—they always use empathy before consequences.

Do you have an empathetic response ready when your kid does something really upsetting?  Most people don’t.  I’ve learned over the years that people who replace anger with empathy all have limited vocabularies when it comes to disciplining. They use very few words.  In fact, people who are able to start with empathy and do it consistently have only one empathetic response—a response that is unique to them, feels comfortable, and doesn’t sound phony. They keep it on the tip of their tongue and use it every single time they need to discipline their kids.

I’ve met people who use simple responses by saying things like, “How sad” or “What a bummer.”  Although these are quite different responses, both provide a strong message of empathy if delivered with sincerity.  We met a guy who ran a boy’s ranch in Nebraska. When any of the kids talked to him about something they’d done wrong, he’d scuff one of his boots back and forth in the dust and sadly say, “Dang.”  How much energy do you need to use that one?  Will “dang” put a kid into frontal cortex mode?  Said with sincere sadness, it sure can!

Listed below are a few empathetic statements we’ve heard people use:

  • “Bless your heart.”
  • “That’s sad.”
  • “Oh, that’s never good.”
  • “Oh, honey.”
  • “That stinks.”
  • “How sad.”
  • “What a bummer.”

Here’s a way you can get an empathetic response ready and on the tip of your tongue.  First, get three sets of Post-It notes and write your one empathetic response on every single one, such as, “What a bummer.”  Second, post them around your house. When you open up a cupboard, there it is, “What a bummer.” When you pull out a drawer, inside it says, “What a bummer.” When you look in the mirror, there it is, “What a bummer.”

Run some quick experiments to find out for yourself the amazing power of empathy. Can it change your life? You bet!


Thanks for reading!

Dr. Charles Fay

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