What I learned about empathy from a used-car salesman

Image by Felix Russell-Saw at unsplash.com

Image by Felix Russell-Saw at unsplash.com

If you're anything like many people I know, or like I was before I did some work in the motor trade, you probably can relate to thinking generally about car salesmen like we might think of sharks.

Dangerous, predatory, untrustworthy.

So when I was part of one of the most heart-warming conversations I've ever had, I knew some day I'd be writing about it. I got permission from the people involved to write this, this week, so here it is.

Let me introduce you to a manager and a team - we'll call the manager Mark (because that is his name).

This manager has been dealing with a sales person who recently lost a very young child, after becoming ill with a rare condition that claimed his life after several months.

I wasn't mainly moved by stories I was told about the whole team attending a tiny person's funeral while the most senior manager 'held the fort'.

It wasn't even by the tears I saw in a colleague's eyes as he talked about what it is like to have one of your team go through something so painful.

Nor even knowing that after returning to work, Mark sent the rota schedule home so the salesperson's wife could complete it to give her some choice over when her partner came back to work.

It was something else.

Mark (he's a parent too) and I were talking about empathy - it's a huge part of the work I do with them and he said:

"How do you do empathy though, when you haven't been through what someone has been through?"

"When they say 'do you know what I mean though?'

And you have to say 'no'.

'No, I have no idea what this must feel like for you'."

Compassion takes courage because it's hard to put yourself in someone else's painful shoes.

Because you can't imagine what that experience is like AND because you have to try, if you are to find the place in you, which knows what they are going through.

I've thought about this a lot.

Partly because I've learned a lot about empathy from this team, and their love and support for their colleague and his family.

And here's what I know.

You can empathise with someone without having had their exact same experience.

Maybe you've never experienced the intensity of what they're experiencing, but you can still relate. If you've known sadness, or fear, or loss of any kind, you can relate.

You can use words like these (I learned most of these from my Daring Way work)

  • I'm so sorry this is happening to you.
  • I don't know what to say, but I am here with you.
  • I will stay with you while you go though this.
  • I am so glad you told me.
  • What do you need, right now?

I think it's more hand-holding and sitting, than fixing or understanding or minimising.

To be willing to empathise, we have to be willing to get it wrong, to maybe say something clumsy, or have it come out not like we intended.

It's okay when we have good intentions to connect with, to feel with, the other person.

It's what binds us in our common humanity.

And if we can be willing to get it wrong and 'circle back' to put it right, we're more likely to try to empathise.

  • I'm sorry, that didn't come out like I wanted it to, let me try again.

or

  • I don't know what to say, but I am here with you. What do you need?

or

  • I don't think I listened well enough when you told me. I'd like to try again. Do you feel like talking?

I wanted to share, because I'm blown away that I'm having these conversations in a culture which most would agree isn't our first thought when we consider places we might find heart-warming empathy and connection.

Isn't that wonderful?

I love that I can easily describe the used-car salespeople that I know as compassionate. Kind-hearted. Empathetic.

This is an extreme story, but it's not the only one I have from my work in the motor trade. Many times I have driven away from a day's Emotional Intelligence coaching in a dealership with my heart bursting wide open with the connection and deep feeling I've witnessed there on that day. 

So if you're wondering if we can empathise with someone's pain, my answer would be yes.

If Mark can do it, so can all of us.

 

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Self-compassion mantra for ultimate shame-shit-storms

A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.
— Christopher K. Germer

I'm on a call with my Daring Way tribe last night and we're talking about the body of work that was the online part of our training - all the posts and sharings and trust-building that happened there. My buddies are agreeing that going back to re-read the messages is valuable and rich and how much they value still having access to that material.

I have the absolute opposite experience to everyone else.

I haven't been able to look at it since we finished in January, I say.

Something that happened in that online training triggered the mother of all shame-shit-storms for me at the time.

The most responsible way I can talk about it is in me making my entire being Wrong-With-a-Capital-W because someone took exception to a response I had written.

The visceral shame response I had in that moment - insides disappeared, everything slowed down, holding my breath, thought loop of 'idiot', all while saying 'fine!' when hubby asked if I was ok - took a few days to pass.

It was three weeks before I could go and revisit my message to really find out what went on there, and once I'd 'circled back' and practiced what we'd learned and committed to about empathy, I never visited that message thread again.

Going back to the online material, even nine months later, would be too painful. I just don't want to go back there. I notice an invisible, powerful reverse magnetic aversion to even thinking about it.

That's not the point of this story though. It's what happened next that was fascinating.

Me too, says one of my buddies. I had a six week shame-shit-storm and I couldn't look at the logo of the company of the other person involved without feeling sick.

And me, says another. I have a dress I had to throw away because I'd had a shame storm in it and I couldn't bear to wear at it again.

Me too, says yet another. I'm going through this right now. I disagreed with my client for a full 20 minutes before asking a question that would have been useful to clarify at the start of the session, and made up that I am an idiot and I should have known better.

I'm in the same boat, says another.  I just royally screwed up my first meeting with someone important because I was more interested in being understood than listening. Have cried more than a few tears since.

Maybe you know that feeling, too. That's exactly what shame does.

Shame gets us all triggered by something and then tells us we're stupid and worthless and nobody else is anywhere near as stupid and worthless and wrong as we are in that moment.

So we're sitting on our call last night, eyes brimming with the tears of connection and being seen, of sharing our most painful failures, and of being loved right there in our beautiful, raw, messy humanness. It makes my heart swell every time, with gratitude for this work.

Here's the truth. It's impossible for shame to bring you down for longer than a millisecond when your 'back is got' by army of empathy-warriors (or even a single gladiator).

Shame hangover?

Brene talks about 'vulnerability hangover' as that sense of having over-shared, and I think we can have a shame-hangover too - so much so that it anchors us to places, people, thoughts, dresses, that can re-trigger that painful experience.

The antidote?

Share. Speak shame. Tell someone you trust your story. Practice self-compassion. If that's hard - try these words for yourself.

Self-compassion mantra for ultimate shame-shit-storms

Ok - shame alert.  I'm doing shame. It's happening right now.

Shame Shame Shame.

It's okay. I'm okay. I'm just going to breathe deeply over here. In. Out. In. Out.

What do I need?

Who shall I call? Who has earned the right to hear my story?

Self-Hug.

If needed, insert one or two 'sweethearts' or 'my darlings' or childhood endearment/pet name with happy and comforting associations. If that's too 'fluffy' for you, you might need it even more. Let the inner five year old you and the twelve year old you know they're ok :)

I'm okay. This will pass.

May I be peaceful. May I be loving. May I feel free. May I know I am worthy of love and belonging. Breathe.

 

Or as my wise buddies Pam shared the following day after our call:

"Help me to believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is".


Over to you.

What's your experience?  Want to share your story?  I would love to hear what you have to say.

 

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what to do when you fail at empathy

Image credit: Dayne Topkin at unsplash.com

Image credit: Dayne Topkin at unsplash.com

You know those people who never seem to mind or notice what others think of them?

Well, that's never been me.

Once upon a time, I was someone who thought the worst thing you could do was to be disapproved of or to upset someone.

So you can imagine my angst as I read these words, in response to a reply I had written to a fellow student on my course:

'Jacqui, I felt uncomfortable when I read your words, and I don't appreciate this kind of comment'.

Uh-ho. Shame-shit-storm alert. Heart pounding. Time slows down. I'm holding my breath.

Here we were, learning about empathy, connection, and trust. And here's me, having failed at that.

I'm such an idiot.

I got it wrong-got-it-wrong-got-it-wrong-got-it-wrong GOT IT WRONG.

What's a girl to do, mid shame-storm?

Ok. Type reply. Make sure he knows he interpreted my message incorrectly. Put him right. Defend myself. TAKE HIM DOWN.

Typed it. Felt bad. Deleted it.

Stomped around the house, huffing and puffing. Said 'nothing!' in a bright, breezy voice when hubby asked what was wrong. Felt like my insides were coming off. Totally disengaged my brain.

Pause. Wait a moment. Pay Attention.

I'm having a shame attack. Name it. Shame shame shame.

Reach out. Tell my story to someone who has earned the right to hear it. A colleague I trust.

Her reply was like a cooling balm on my burning shame-iness.

"Bravo for reaching out. You're in the arena. I'm here. What do you need?".

Shame can't survive in the warm embrace of empathy, of being seen, and knowing we're not alone.

Ok. Deep breath. Circle back. Put this right.

New reply typed, from a wholehearted, open, honest place. Connection made with original poster. We see each other. This is the work.

 

Over to you.

What's your experience? What happens for you when you fail?  What works for you when someone is trying to understand how you feel?  I would love to hear what you have to say.

 

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