What Is Empathy and Why Is It Important in Ministry?
Feeling heard and understood is a basic human need. Everyone needs to feel understood. Feeling understood is not only a basic human need but it is also how we connect, help, and support one another. If we can’t recognize someone in pain, how can we support them? For this reason, empathy is a crucial practice for those in ministry. Rutgers psychologist Daniel Goleman speaks to its importance: “Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.” Nor can they be a great pastor or minister.
So, what is empathy? According to Alfred Alder, empathy “is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” In the book, “Born for Love,” authors Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD describe empathy this way: “The essence of empathy is the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there. Your primary feelings are more related to the other person’s situation than your own.” According to the research of Brené Brown, “Empathy is communicating that incredible healing message of ‘You’re not alone.”
Four Qualities That Describe Empathy
Brown contends that our brains are wired to run from pain—including emotional pain—whether it is ours or someone else’s. Brown points out that empathy rarely starts with the words, “At least…” and that oftentimes, the best response is, “I don’t know what to say, but I am really glad you told me.”
Fixing your church member, friend, or loved one’s problem is not often what is needed, nor is it necessarily your job or even within your ability to do so. Sharing a listening, caring ear is something most people can do. When we feel heard, cared about, and understood, we also feel loved, accepted, and as if we belong.
In I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) (2008), Brown references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s four attributes of empathy:
- To be able to see the world as others see it—This requires putting your own “stuff” aside to see the situation through your loved one’s eyes.
- To be nonjudgmental—Judgement of another person’s situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation.
- To understand another person’s feelings—We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else’s. Again, this requires putting your own “stuff” aside to focus on your loved one.
- To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings—Rather than saying, “At least you…” or “It could be worse…” try, “I’ve been there, and that really hurts,” or (to quote an example from Brown), “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”
Brown explains that empathy is a skill that strengthens with practice and encourages people to both give and receive it often. By receiving empathy, not only do we understand how good it feels to be heard and accepted, we also come to better understand the strength and courage it takes to be vulnerable and share that need for empathy in the first place.
When empathy is done well, the person sees themselves in a mirror, their emotions dissipate, and they are ready to take action oftentimes. Yet, if we are filled with our own pain, it is nearly impossible to see or feel what it’s like from another’s experience because their emotions will set off a chain reaction of our own unresolved emotions. So Brown contends that one of the first keys of empathy is to be aware of our own emotions. It is only with this awareness that we can be present to another.
The Bottom Line
Empathy is the ability to truly be present. It’s the ability to hold a safe space for others to feel their own emotions completely and to be able to understand their experience. Empathy is one of the most vital of emotional skills that a minister can possess, especially if you want to be helpful in the crisis moments and difficult times that members of your congregation inevitably face.
Posted on August 5, 2021