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Last week we practiced Empathy Circling. (Here’s a short process description.) I would call it a very simple process, mostly active listening with some turn taking and one core skill of “reflecting”. We attempt to do this by repeating back what we have heard. Like looking into a physical mirror, we want to see a “true” reflection of ourselves without warp or twist.
As humans listening to words, we can’t just bounce back photons or sound waves - and even if we could, that’s not what it means to be heard. To represent an utterance in a faithful or appropriate way, it has to be received in our brain, understood, encoded using our own concepts, and regenerated using a combination of our compressed mental models and our working (or short-term) memory.
We don’t want, in this process of “reflecting back” what someone has shared, to add any analysis or judgement. Personally I find this quite hard, and doable only in the “pretty close, good enough” sense as a bit of summarization inevitably creeps in. The Empathy Circling practice represents this by saying “I feel heard,” which thankfully doesn’t require full fidelity. If the key bits loop back in a recognizable form, then the transmission was probably a success!
When we are reflecting, it can just as rightly be said that we are translating. Have you ever written something into Google Translate and then reverse-translated it back, just to see if funny shifts in meaning occur? Each of us, inside the filters of our listening and speaking processes, have a slightly customized internal representation language. Chosing words to speak is a translation, and hearing them is another. Reflecting back a message doubles that to four translations, but cuts off the game of telephone and allows the speaker to adapt and correct a translation fail right away.
Why don’t we do this all the time? Well, it’s expensive - if we were perfect communicators and listeners, that’s a loss of half our bandwidth. How much should we do it? After this week, my answer is “more often than we do” and let me say, it’s not just because of the time-cost of misunderstandings. I see a deeper value here in the connection of reflection to empathy. We know what we mean when we say something, and just like a physical mirror, the mirroring process reveals the nature of the mirror: is it true to our essence, or biasing our color or shape?
We communicate to each other, human to human, because we care about transmitting not just facts but also our inner experiences. We want to be understood, seen, empathized with. We want to build trust, build relationship, build connection, with the people we care about. Demonstrating that we really “get” the world of the other person requires modeling them in the same way that we model ourselves. It is when we caricature the other that we can hold them in contempt. To practice empathy is to connect to another in a way that breeds care, compassion, love.
Next up this week is a practice called the Glass Bead Game. A few more weeks focused on relational practices, perhaps, before we take a look at Adult Development.