Taking a Pause: Why Reflection is a Crucial Part of the Empathic Process

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Our Thoughts
  • by Kellie Coppola

If you’re ever in-field with SEEK after an empathic immersion, you likely can recall the feeling you’ve had. You shake hands with the person, whose home you just sat in for hours, for the final time, shut the door, head towards the car, and immediately want to blurt out every ounce of information you’ve just absorbed. And how could you not? Diving deep into the core of who someone is something worth talking about, and something that so naturally wants to break free from our thoughts. But we don't allow ourselves to talk about it — yet. And there are some really good reasons why.

After having an empathic connection with someone, we always allow for a fifteen minute period of silence and reflection.  We’ve spent the last 2-3 hours immersed in someone else’s story, and before we do anything, we first need some space to be alone in our thoughts, feelings and reactions.  This can serve a few crucial purposes; because it looks a little different for everyone, we asked our people at SEEK to share a bit about why it's so important to reflect and what goals they've set for themselves during such a crucial time.

  1. To check in with ourselves and step out of the hole to safely finish the empathic process.

    Empathy is quite literally feeling with someone else. It involves going out of our safe space and entering deep into the experience of someone else. Sometimes, the journey into that ‘hole’ can bring up some feelings that are just so overwhelming that we might even feel stuck in them.  In order to truly activate that gut response on another’s behalf, we have to first be sure that we are in a place where we can think critically and eventually help, and that can be difficult when you’re wrapped up in deep or intense emotions.

    “Oftentimes when I leave an immersion or an entire week of empathic conversations for that matter, I sometimes find it really challenging at first to get out of whatever feeling it stirred inside of me. I start to experience the feeling of guilt and think to myself, “I can’t just leave them here in this dark place. How am I supposed to just step out when they are still here?” But if I don’t get out of it, then I can’t help them. I know this.

    So, I honor the emotion, the feeling, the darkness they are in. I honor the hell out of it. I place it somewhere high in my thoughts and recognize the deepness and importance of it. And I step back into my reality. It’s like an oxygen mask on an airplane. I can’t assist others until my own mask is on, first. Once I do this, I can experience clarity; the clarity needed to serve them the way we set out to.”

  2. To identify what’s theirs and what’s ours.

    Taking a moment to reflect can help us not only get to a place of safety, but it offers an opportunity to acknowledge and sort out our emotions from theirs to ensure a truly empathy-driven result. We aren’t perfect, sometimes the emotion that we feel may be less of what the other person is feeling, and more our feelings as a response to the information they are sharing and we have to acknowledge that so we make sure our gut response is truly on someone else’s behalf.

    Many of our consultants have experienced this first hand.

    “I believe it’s important to take a moment for yourself after an empathic connection because it can be emotionally exhausting. You spend a (relatively) short amount of time getting to know someone on a deep, human level, and it’s kind of like drinking from a fire hose.”

    “I need a moment to find me again, make sure I can tell what's mine and what's theirs.  It gives me a chance to navigate the experience with a sense of safety, which I think helps me go deeper.  It's like a scuba tank on a deep dive... when I know I have plenty of oxygen, I feel a lot more able to go deep and really study what's down there.”

    Identifying feelings or even our reactions towards something can actually help uncover some of the key details that will help us act on another’s behalf and call out points where we can really empathize with them. One of our consultants gives us an example of this:

    A woman kept going on about her guilt when she leaves her cat alone to go on a trip.  I felt really reactive; really judgy. This woman is nuts; she treats her cat like a child.  

    It only took a minute of reflection to ask, "why am I so mad at her?  That's pretty harsh man... why is this bothering me so much?" That led me to realize that I felt judged... like, if this is how she feels about her cat, then what does it mean about the fact that I left my one-year-old to come here?  Of course, she wasn't judging me, I was judging me. I felt guilt, I felt like I abandoned my kid, and I didn't even go out of my way to make up for it like she did.

    That led me to really identify with her guilt.  From there I could not only understand her experience but feel it, and start to immediately think of solutions/messages for her.

  3. It’s a time to take stock.

    Those hours give us a treasure trove of information— a lot happens to us.  To engage a genuinely empathy-driven gut response, we need to be able to lay out all of our thoughts, feelings, connections we drew, questions we have, and more. Once we do this, we can pick out what’s important to take with us through the rest of the empathic process.  One individual’s empathic connection may be different than someone else’s, and if we react before we have a solid grasp of our own experience, we might leave out something crucial. It also helps us identify gaps in our own knowledge or things that we might have missed because maybe someone else might be able to jog our memory.

    “I ask myself, ‘How am I feeling? Why might this be?’ ‘What emotions was she experiencing when sharing her stories?’ ‘What stood out or is something I can’t stop thinking about?’...The goal in that moment is to capture the raw feelings, emotions, and observations so they don’t get lost amongst the chatter and analysis. I want to respect all the ‘data’ I just collected, and because there are likely more immersions to come, I want to make sure my interaction with this person isn’t lost.”

    The empathic journey is an important one, an amazing one, and a necessary one. Immersing ourselves in someone else’s story takes courage, patience and the commitment of our full selves to really to take on the emotional state of another and act on their behalf.  But, whether it’s in the context of an immersion or life outside research, we have to take a moment of reflection so that we may dig ourselves out of their hole, maintain a discerning and open heart and to, ultimately, enable a genuine gut response.