Getting through the holiday season with empathy

Suzanne Jones
Posted 12/4/19

Patience, tolerance, and kindness are all good ways to get through the holidays. We all have a lot of experience navigating the holidays but sometimes things go awry. So here are some scenarios that …

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Getting through the holiday season with empathy

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Patience, tolerance, and kindness are all good ways to get through the holidays. We all have a lot of experience navigating the holidays but sometimes things go awry. So here are some scenarios that can alleviate holiday tension and create more connection between us and our families, co-workers and friends.

Scenario one: At a holiday party with your co-workers or your neighbors, you suddenly find yourself in a political discussion. You never intended to go there but here you are. One very helpful way to get through this is when you hear yourself saying something like “Well, my point of view may be a bit upsetting to you but…” Stop right there. When we attempt to show concern for another person’s feelings and then say “but,” we have just negated our concern for the other person’s feelings.

Think about it: Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?

Do we need to argue opposing political views or offer criticisms of last year’s potluck offerings at a holiday party? Or is a joy-filled time of connection with our friends and neighbors what we want most?

The concept of empathy is a very useful tool for keeping holiday gatherings easy and joyful. I have found that the best way to keep conversations flowing and connected is to simply feed back to the other person what you are hearing them say. That is how Dr. Carl Rogers, the man who introduced the concept of empathy into American psychology, defines it. Let the other person know that you are really hearing them for who they are and for what matters to them. 

This way of interacting brings people closer together and helps people feel heard and supported.

The hard part is feeding back to them what you heard them say without adding your opinions, judgments, analyses or evaluations of what they said. This isn’t easy because we have been trained to make judgments quickly and stand up for our opinions. Not bad when in a debate, but not always helpful at a holiday party.

Empathy creates beautiful, heartfelt connections. This second scenario compares an empathic with a non-empathic response: “Hi, how are you doing? Say, what do you think about the latest political shenanigans?”

“Well, I’m pretty frustrated with those (members of a political party). I don’t think they know what they’re doing.”

Not Empathy: “Yeah, but, if you just think about it, they’re doing the best they can.”

Empathy: “So, you’re feeling pretty frustrated. I hear you.”

There is a time and a place for everything. Information sharing, comparisons, and even debate are useful at times. During the holidays, however, empathy may be the better approach.

(Suzanne is an author, artist, and musician, co-leads the Local 20/20 Resiliency of Heart Action Group, and will be facilitating free bi-monthly public workshops in compassionate communication and community building this coming spring and summer. Contact HC@L2020.org for details.)

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