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Empathy and Architecture: On Foundations

Empathy is about relationships. Architecture is about building things that last. Building lasting relationships? A marriage made in heaven?

When you are building something – whether a bridge, house, or a relationship – the challenge is to get the fundamentals just right. The foundation is what connects the structure to the earth. This is the case especially with bridges that span vast chasms. 

Empathy: a bridge over waters, calm or troubled. Illustration credit: Alex Zonis

The architect building a structure knows that the structure has to go down to bedrock. You have to go down to what is stable and abides or the structure can be magnificent, beautiful, and elegant; but it will crack, lean over like the leaning Tower of Pisa, and then fall over due to design flaws. Or like the Tacoma Narrows bridge, it will start resonating in the wind and tear itself loos from its foundation and collapse. [Granted, the Leaning Tower was “fixed” by those ingenious Japanese engineers who hollowed out a space on the higher side enabling the Tower to “fall up.”]

Therefore, to explore the bedrock for the structure of empathy we have to ask what is bedrock in human relations? But wait. I thought the foundation of human relations was – empathy. The bedrock is empathy. 

But what is the bedrock of the bedrock? On what is empathy itself founded?  How do we get access to the foundation of the foundation? Isn’t the foundation just the foundation? Not exactly. Read on. 

The way to get access to the question of what is the foundation of the foundation is to ask what can go wrong. Imagine empathy was a bicycle – it can get a flat tire, the handle bars can fall off, the chain can break, or the rim can get bent, and so on.  A square wheel won’t roll. In each case, something is missing – wholeness. The bike as a bike is incomplete and, therefore, does not work. 

Likewise with empathy. Empathy can break down. When we engage with the break downs, we get access to the foundation. 

Empathy can break down as emotional contagion, conformity, projection, or get lost in translation. In each case, something is missing – wholeness. 

The foundation of the foundation is integrity. The Roman Stoic politician and philosopher Cicero defined “insanity” (insanitas) as lack of wholeness, incompleteness, or being fragmented (see Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations a Roman “psychiatry”). Here “integrity” is not meant in the narrow ethical sense of right/wrong, but rather “integrity” in the sense of being authentic. In the case of empathy integrity means being present with the other person without anything else added or missing. 

Therefore, the foundation of empathy is working on one’s own integrity and authenticity in being related. Without such a foundation, one is building on a mud pie.

You know how when things go wrong, the tendency is to find someone to blame and point the finger in someone’s direction? The word “responsibility” can hardly be uttered and our listening is “bad and wrong” and “who’s to blame,” you know? You did it! He did it! She did it! Now in the course of this work on empathy that finger has a tendency to change direction – and it points to oneself. 

Clean up your messes. Illustration credit: Alex Zonis

“I say I am committed to keeping my agreements but I am actually committed to not rocking boat” “I say I am committed to freedom of expression but I am in fact actually committed to being liked, being popular.” “I say that I am generous in my relationships but I am actually attached to holding onto grudges and grievances.” “I say that I am committed to being faithful in my relationship but the only reason I am faithful is that in fact I lack opportunity to betray my partner.” “I say I am honest but cut corners and cheat on my business expenses or taxes.” “I say that I am committed to telling the truth but I am actually committed to looking good.” You can provide examples of your own. This list goes on. 

Therefore, clean up your own messes first. I have to work on myself – and you, dear reader, have to work on yourself – and we have to clean up our own acts prior to taking the empathy game to the street and coaching others. 

The foundation is cleaning up one’s own integrity outages. Acknowledging the cost and impact and, where possible, making restitution and repair. The ultimate path to authenticity is cleaning up one’s inauthenticities. 

Because a bridge falls down does not mean that bridge building is a failed science; because a tower leans over does not mean that the physics of building towers is in error. It means human beings on occasion misapply the practices of bridge building and tower making. Likewise with the practice of empathy. It’s the practice that counts.

Without consistent, enduring practice, the results you get will be a roll of the dice; and getting lucky is not a viable plan when anything important is at stake. That is the bad news and also the good news in expanding empathy in the individual and the community. It’s all about the practice. 

Three recommendations: practice, practice, practice – and be sure to get a second opinion – a coach – to provide feedback on your practice (so the bridge doesn’t fall down!),

So, back to the architectural metaphor: a lot of site preparation is needed. The structure is multi-unit and multi-person. The site of empathy includes receptivity of the other’s feelings, understanding of the other as a possibility, talking a walk in the other’s shoes (the folk definition of empathy), and translating the other’s experience into one’s own and vice versa. Heating and cooling include emotional regulation and distress tolerance shows up as weather proofing and lightening rods. 

From another point of view, empathy is not a standalone structure. It is a bridge connecting individuals and communities. It is a bridge over troubled waters on a stormy day and a source of satisfying relatedness on a sunny one. 

Okay, I have read enough I want to get the book, Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide, a light-hearted look at empathy, containing some two dozen illustrations by artist Alex Zonis and including the one minute empathy training plus numerous tips and techniques for taking your empathy to the next level: click here (https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f)

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project