During my college years, there was a dorm floor that had developed a well deserved reputation, for let’s just say, being rowdy. As a result of these ongoing problems the decision was made to close the floor for a year to air it out literally and metaphorically. They needed an RA (Resident Assistant) willing to take on this rather unique challenge, and I was blessed to be the “chosen one”. The first day on campus I arrived and unpacked the small amount of stuff I had brought and headed out to class. When I returned to my room, I saw four walls…. that was it….four walls, all my things had been removed. Clothing, bed, furniture, everything was now gone. Realizing that this was a test, I started my hunt to find my things. Upon leaving the dorm my treasure hunt ended with the entirety of my room now set up in the middle of the sidewalk. My bed was made, side table with lamp---everything. I stretched out, relaxed and decided to play along. The staring and the questions were quite amusing. After about an hour the Dean approached and while chuckling asked, “What are you doing?” To which I responded while sitting at my desk, “I’m bonding with my floor”. He smiled and said, “Let me know if you need anything.” A short time later, I was met with several large athletes laughing and slapping me on the back as they returned the items to my room. For the rest of the semester I had very few issues. I could have stomped my feet and demanded to know who was responsible for this, but instead, I decided to engage with what I would now call Practical Empathy.
I think for most of us when we think of empathy, it is an acknowledgment and valuing of someone’s else’s feelings. Practical empathy can be an effective tool that brings significance and even healing to our relationships. Rather than just the appreciation of another person’s perspective (especially when it is different than our own) it moves us towards tangible steps that can assist us in seeing even more the deep value of the other individual. I would like to explore this new term.
Practical empathy: When a person makes an effort to engage in an attitude and or a behavior that communicates value to another person even if you disagree with their position.
Our natural inclination is to present enough information to the individual we are disagreeing with and what can ensue is a pile of information between the two and often a damaged relationship as a result. What if you used some of the elements of practical empathy and did something concrete that said, “you matter” even though we disagree. Why put forth such an effort? It’s simple…when you experience a sense of being valued by someone else the area of disagreement can start to seem tiny. However, when the disagreement is the focus the value of the other person gets smaller . . . and smaller. So why not create relational giants in your life through large amounts of practical empathy?
Think of someone in your life that you are having a disagreement with, what could you do in a practical way that would communicate value to that person? Here are a few ideas that could help you achieve the goal:
· An encouraging note that says, “I love that we can be such great friends even when we disagree.”
· Or rather then sending another email or text re-explaining your position, simply say, “Can we grab coffee? I need someone I can just laugh with!”
· Send a funny gift that you know will make them smile.
· Each day, send them a text that starts with “Another thing I appreciate about you is…”
· Use Doordash to send them their favorite ice cream.
When we experience a sense of feeling valued in the context of a disagreement it can profoundly change everything. The hardest part is often times taking a step away from a desire to prove our point and towards seeing the awesome person that has a different perspective.