Empathic inquiry — about more than our understanding

totel.ly
6 min readFeb 16, 2023
Photo by Kasper Rasmussen on Unsplash

What did you learn about yourself from this?

How did you feel, when you read that?

What is important to you?

These are inquiring — connective questions, that we can associate with empathy.

As a fairly mentally active person — with a mind quick to its own answers, but also as someone that has striven to practice presence and meditation for a long time, it took some time for it to dawn on me, how to consciously apply and embody empathy in human relations. Also to see its profound but subtle benefits in my surroundings. Now I see it as a practice. Practice of inquiry.

Ifind empathic inquiry is worth a consistent effort since it is probably the single most potent quality in human relations to cultivate. Yes. More potent than articulation skills. Even though empathic listening and passionate expressions are both good to practice. I just think empathy is the key conductor in human relations — that which makes all other possibilities truly possible.

Therefore empathy and listening skills can be seen as essential groundwork — just to keep going and growing as humans.

Embodying presence

We may find that our ability to create a true experience of empathy is not as much about understanding — as it is about living embodiment of inquring and then being present with. Simply being present with.

There may indeed be some elements of mental and emotionally intelligent aspects to empathy — viable interpretations of events and feelings, relevant in the progression of things. But fundamentally empathy itself is a lived and experiential process . Welcoming what is presently alive within ourselves (self-empathy) or someone else. That happens through receptive and embodied presence that is spacious and open.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.“ — Rumi

Empathy exists outside of the judgmental context of right and wrong, male and female, and other countless categorizes and measurement guidelines we have learned to abide by, which often do nothing but familiarize the polarized and separative framework of our minds. Some can also be referred to as empathy blockers.

Meanwhile, most of us crave the real-life - conscious engagement we might call empathy. Why? I think simply because we meet the basic human need of being seen and/or heard, outside of stereotypical framing. We step into our worth, simply as who we are as humans, whatever else role we have taken on in this life.

Empathic inquiry is a process that also seems life-affirming to us as social beings — as we are wired neorologically for relational functioning.

I don´t think it’s fair to say either that empathy is a rare gift that only some “good“ people have. But a practice anyone can learn and step into, where giving and receiving become interrelated — two sides of the same coin.

How is empathy is about more than understanding?

Allow me to elaborate.

But first, let´s explore the following statements:

“I know exactly what you are going through”

“I know how that is”

“I suffered from that for years”

“I have been there”

All well-meaning and seemingly understanding expressions. That most of us are familiar with.

However — we are not someone else.

But that does not mean we are separate. We can stand on a common ground, but still recognize our differences. Differences that each are contribution to the whole.

We don´t know how it is to exactly be someone else in the unique context they experience themselves within as humans, nor do we know the specific needs and values that matter to them the most — what generates their feelings and thoughts. Until we ask. But we can relate to their needs when they surface. That is connection.

The more we can cultivate actual listening, the more we can empathize. The more we can create connections, but also learn to respond appropriately to the unique context of others reality and what is affecting their lives, in a way we can relate, not fully understand. There is a difference. That is how we invite life-affirming dynamics and relevant solutions to the relationship.

The journey of empathy comes with the notion, that everyone´s experience is uniquely sovereign to their own. Even though we can somewhat understand and relate to them based on our own understanding of ourselves.

The fact that we don´t understand entirely, does not mean we should be dismissive or feel disempowered in face of not knowing. But rather allow that to spark more of our openness and curiosity — which is another component of empathic inquiry. There is more complexity emerging from within each of us, than we often think. Showing up to the challenge of exploring diversity that is.

Somewhere in between the notion of respecting the unique reality of others and the willingness to hear out their perspective seems to lie the deeply transformative and life-affirming listening power of human empathy.

Saving advice until after connecting

Some people can embody empathy with others, with seemingly effortless grace and ease, but we don´t know all the internal soil work they have done in their own backyard — self-work. But we do see that there are people that truly help the rest of us grow as humans, simply in the way they engage and hold space. Others (like me for example) need to put in the conscious effort to step into and practice that space of unfiltered listening and steer away momentarily from the tendency to give guidance and direction — that may or may not come later.

Empathy is probably best applied as a conscious act of connecting with and being present with whatever arises — before it migrates into an act of solving problems.

Marshall Rosenberg the founder of a communication approach rooted in deep empathy, called NVC said; “Intellectual understanding blocks empathy.”

There is beauty and a living systems approach in that. There are indicators that in the midst of all our drive to succeed, lack of empathy towards ourselves, others and nature has been a part of the paradigm. Partially because we don´t slow down enough and listen in. Taking in what is arising within and in front of us — before we act and make important life affirming decisions.

We are facing real-life agile challenges of when to apply understanding and knowledge and when not to. To me, it helps to be mindful that when dealing with humans we are always dealing with complexity of living needs of actual living beings (not fixed stereotypes — external roles)

There seems to be palpable complexity arising in each moment people come together for mutual understanding and growth. Of course it is often relevant to sooth the insatiable need to involve our feedback and share our perspectives.

But if we want to hold the inquiring space of empathy in the meanwhile. We can practice talking from our own reality, rather than claiming overall understanding, saying things like:

I imagine…

I feel moved…

I would feel…

I experienced it as…

As I understand…

etc.

Although it seems that holding empathy space effectively might be more about asking - than addressing. Sometimes it is a balancing act — like in a good dynamic dialogue.

The subtle art of connective questions

If we want to create space that contains the qualitative act of listening and keep the channels of empathy open and alive. We may find that asking relevant and inquiring questions is a great tool — as we listen in for the answer.

In that, we find the essence of good coaching sessions, successful team meetings, effective and truly influential leadership, relational building, creative brainstorming, and dialogues. All are based on the subtle art of welcoming and adjusting to someone else’s reality first — without denying our own of course. But before we add our brilliant ideas and intuitive interpretations to the context — as our perspective.

“Postpone result/solution thinking until later; it’s through connection that solutions materialize — empathy before education.”
- Marshall Rosenberg

The practice of empathy is therefore simply the art of being present with, giving space to, and listening to the version of reality that only the person we are talking to has unique access to.

While simultaneously knowing that presence and listening are universal qualities we all can cultivate beyond our external roles and stereotypes. With corresponding benefits to all our relations.

In that sense empathic inquiring is an empowering process — as we keep going and growing as humans.

Probably one of the most life-affirming and diversity navigating practices of our times.

What did you learn about yourself from this?

How did you feel, when you read that?

What is important to you?

Written by Olafur Aron Sveinsson Regenerator — wellness- and coaching facilitator

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