A power we're built to use, and yet too often ignore
We all have power - more than we recognize. We have the power to laugh, share and relate at any given moment. We also have the power to ignore, ridicule and judge. All of these are within all of us. While i’m of the belief that most people don’t consciously set out to ignore, ridicule or judge others, it does happen with enough frequency to ask why we, as a culture, act this way.
The singular power that solves moves us all toward positive relationships is empathy. Empathy is placing ourselves in another person’s point of view. Why does this matter? Because all of our assumptions and professed “truths” are littered with our own perspective. What “is” is defined by the way we see it.
I’m currently reading Alan Alda’s book, “If I understood you, Would I have this look on my face?” I’ve always enjoyed Alda’s acting, dating back to seeing and occasionally enjoying MASH as a child (it was clearly too sophisticated for my young taste - I could never get past the tonal switch between silly and deadly that made it the brilliant show it was). I just wanted the silly all the time. And Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce was my favorite character.
Alda helped develop the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. For those who have a chronic illness or are care partners for those who do, you know the importance of communicating with your doctors. You very likely also know the frustration of it. There are many brilliant minds that grasp micro details of science that certainly whirl past me, but have a nearly impossible time looking me in the eye while relating sometimes life or death information.
Alda argues that empathy is the power we’re built to use, and yet too often ignore. I agree wholeheartedly. And, as someone who teaches empathy via improvisation and does his best to live within that space, consciously writing about and researching the topic as I am right now, I still feel the need to be constantly reminded about sharing this power with people in my life. I’m good at it when I’m focused on it - but not so much when I’m tired, frustrated, scared or in transactional mode.
There’s a speaker I’ve had the great fortune to work with by the name of Ford Taylor who taught me about transactional relationships. He runs a program called Transformational Leadership. I’ve held on to many things he taught in the weekend immersive session the company I was with at the time did with him, but one that sticks with me on a daily basis is the difference between transactional and relational relationships. He talks about the value of finding balance between the two areas so people find both a personal connection and a sense of accomplishment in their daily lives. As he likes to say, it’s simple, but it’s not easy.
So, knowing that knowing isn’t enough - e.g. because you understand how to pick up a weight doesn’t mean you’re capable of doing it - how do we practice this connection skill? Improvisation is one way. A skilled improvisation coach helps her students play their way through scenarios that encourage people to truly listen what is being said and feel what the other person is saying. Just like weight training, you must work this muscle regularly in order to be ready to use it in daily life.
The results of truly being heard and understood are proven and profound. Unlike Taylor’s example of finding balance between the transactional and relational, getting to the level of truly hearing or being heard is a far steeper climb. Alda’s word for this is “relating”. As he was scolded by Oscar-winning Director Mike Nichols once on set, “You kids think relating is the icing on the cake. It isn’t. It’s the cake.”
By seeing relating as the cake, with all else being layers of frosting and toppings to go on top and the side, it’s pretty clear how we end up with cavities in our relationships. We must be foundational first - doctor or patient, care partner or provider. All of us must be able to relate to each other in order to do help each other to our highest good. It takes work.
Not simple. Not easy. But right - and very, very powerful.