On the job


- As told to Giselle Au-nhien Nguyen

I got into empathy education as part of an accidental career pivot. My background is in public health, and for about a decade, I’d been doing sexual-health education work. Then, in my personal life, I had an enormous disruptive shift. I went from having migraines once or twice a month to having them every day. This changed every aspect of my life – I went from being fully productive to being unable to work for months and stuck in my apartment.

It really changed my interperso­nal relationsh­ips. I had lots of loving, wonderful people who had the best intentions, but the way they interacted with me was not what I needed. Most of what I got from them was unsolicite­d advice, trying to suggest cures or things that were just ridiculous. None of it was really empathy. I knew it wasn’t because these people didn’t care about me, but because they had no idea how to support me. When I talked to other people who'd gone through major illness or grief, they said very similar things.

I didn’t have work in mind, just the idea of how to teach the people in my life to engage with me differentl­y, and how to engage with people who were sick or going through major life turmoil. I invented a workshop that I ran from my apartment, and called it Tea & Empathy. I invited a dozen or so friends over and served a bunch of tea. I got everyone into small groups to exchange genuine empathy without offering advice or clichés. I ran these little parties in my home for months. Once I was managing my migraines, I started talking about them on social media and getting clients – then I began offering them profession­ally.

Typically, in a workshop I do a short presentati­on about empathy, then get people into small groups. They share something stressful that’s going on in their lives, and work with each other and my Tea & Empathy ‘feelings cards’. Then we discuss what that experience was like, to have someone listen without interrupti­ng or giving advice – just connecting with your feelings.

I developed the cards because any time you ask someone how they’re feeling, even if they’re quite emotionall­y intelligen­t, they’ll usually only mention one to three emotions, but if you prompt them with different ‘feelings’ words – delighted, resilient, uncertain – they’re going to come up with a lot more. When you name feelings, it helps dissipate the distress around them. I wanted to make a tool to help people name their feelings better, and better connect with other people’s feelings. People who’ve never been to my workshops use the cards independen­tly with others in their lives, or on their own as a self-care tool.

One of the really delightful and surprising things about this work is that the groups I teach are incredibly diverse. I’ve taught finance people, university students, domestic violence perpetrato­rs, clinicians and groups of people who are ill. I taught teenagers once – that was challengin­g. It never ceases to amaze me how diverse people’s emotional experience­s are. I’m always thrilled by how many will spend their free time learning how to support the people in their lives better.

In the beginning, a lot of my clients were younger and hadn’t yet gone through a major life catastroph­e. Now, with the pandemic, everybody’s gone through something that has seriously disrupted their life. More than ever, it’s important to upskill so we can talk about our own feelings, as well as hold space for other people to talk about theirs.

Empathy is like any social skill – we learn by observing others. The more we practise, the better we get. If you’re trying to get better, start with curiosity, and the next thing is increasing your emotional vocabulary. When you have those two things, it’s really powerful.

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