I had started to collect my 450 client-therapy hours towards becoming a UKCP registered Psychotherapist. It was tough, as I was exposed to psychological and personal challenges I was absolutely not used to as a Coach.
I was trying my best, but something wasn’t working. Some clients came for a few sessions, then abruptly stopped. That was hard to take emotionally, and I began to question my ability to support psychotherapeutic clients.
As I was talking the cases through with my supervisor Steve, he leaned back, looked at me, and asked if I knew the story of the wind and the sun. I did not. It’s quite profound.
“The wind and the sun were talking one day as they observed a man sitting on a bench. It was rather cold, so the man was dressed in a scarf and a coat. Out of the blue, the wind suggested a little challenge to the sun. The wind said, “I’ll bet I can blow that man’s coat off.” The sun scoffed. “I’ll take that bet and I raise it. You can’t do it … but I can.”
“You?” said the wind. “What power do you have? No way.” And so, the contest was on.
The wind began to blow in chilly winds from the north. The man tugged his coat up tighter around his neck. So, the wind kicked up the intensity of the wind speed a few notches. As the wind blew stronger and stronger, the man struggled to sit upright on the bench. The more powerfully the wind blew, the tighter the man wrapped his scarf and coat around himself. Now, the wind was blowing at full force and it was freezing cold. The man, gripping the bench with both hands, pulled his knees up and huddled in a kind of ball in a desperate attempt to keep from freezing. No way to take of his coat! The Wind had failed.
Now it was the sun’s turn.
The sun began to smile. With a kind and friendly look, it simply glowed without exerting even the tiniest fraction of the effort the wind had put in. In the warm sunrays, the man started to feel comfortable. He straightened up on the bench, stretching his legs and loosening his scarf. As the sun continued to casually beam its rays, the man started to get quite warm. Then, he began to sweat. He mumbled to himself, “Crazy weather. Never seen anything like it. But I’d better take my coat off before I roast.”
The sun had won.”
I asked Steve why he’d told me the story. Steve, being Steve, played the question back to me. “Well, I said, perhaps I am trying too hard to impress my clients and find solutions for their problems. Maybe I should just be with them, like the sun, and let them decide how to deal with the discomfort they’re experiencing.”
Steve smiled. “Yes, support your clients with warm rays and stop trying to find the magic bullet to fix their problems!”
Got it, but that’s easier said than done. In the course of debriefing my supervision session, I was reminded of a little video we watched as part of our studies. The brief 2.5-minute clip is about empathy.
Based on a talk by Brené Brown, the video opened my eyes. If you’re unfamiliar with her, she’s an American professor and author well-known for her research on vulnerability, shame and leadership.
What I needed to do to be more like “the sun” became quite clear.
Brown talks about 4 key qualities differentiating empathy from sympathy. Empathy involves:
- Being able to take the perspective of an individual in a difficult situation,
- Staying out of judgement,
- Recognizing the emotions in the other person
- Communicating to them the emotional impact you’ve seen and heard.
“Empathy is feeling with people” she says. It requires that “we connect with something inside ourselves, which knows that feeling.”
And this is what makes it so difficult!
It can be hard, connecting with a painful and perhaps dark place inside ourselves. And so, we’re habitually tempted to “make things better” or dish out advice. Sitting with our own pain, as we relate to the difficult situation of the other person, can cause us pain and discomfort.
But, if someone shares something really difficult and challenging with us, the person is probably not looking for proposals on how to immediately resolve the situation. So, what are they looking for? An empathic response, so they don’t feel alone.
Brené Brown suggests when someone shares something really difficult with us, a more appropriate response could be, “I honestly don’t know what to say now. But I am so glad you told me!” She believes that rarely can a response make something better. “But what makes something better is connection!”
I watch the video at least once a week, and while it is not always easy to “be like the sun,” I feel I can be more present and connected with the pain and discomfort of my clients. In return, many have now stayed with me, even through the toughest of times.
My challenge to you is simple. Whenever someone shares something difficult with you, don’t problem-solve. Remember the sun. Sit there and provide your warm rays. Just be there for the person.
Be with the person.
In doing that you make someone’s life a little better – through connection.