Empathy lies in the stories we tell ourselves

connection empathy positive intent storytelling trust

In every interaction we have with other people, we can't help but connect the dots and tell ourselves a story.

We try to guess why people do things.

We jump to conclusions about how people are feeling.

We make snap judgments and proceed as if they are facts.

How you tell that story in that moment will determine so much about the interaction.

You can change the emotional tenor of the interaction by choosing that story a different way. Instead of going with the default narrative your brain selects, reframe it with the most charitable explanation you can think of.

This morning my son was late getting ready for school. He is usually very good about moving through the morning, but the past few days he has been dragging more and more.

His mood isn't great. He has some transitions going on and he is having a harder and harder time with them. He feels down most days.

But usually he is able to rally, pick up speed at the end of the process, and get out the door on time.

Not today. I was getting frustrated because it seemed like he was sitting around.

My mind jumped to "He is not trying." I wanted to yell at him and tell him to get his act together.

At one point I gently flicked his ear while walking by to get his attention in a joking sort of way.

Instead of a smiling "hey" that I expected, he burst into tears.

I wasn't trying to be mean, but it was clearly not the time for that interaction with him.

I immediately apologized. I knew right away that I had been telling myself the wrong story.

He wasn't lollygagging, he was struggling.

I rewrote the story in my head, as I wish I had done in the first place: "He really can't get himself ready this morning on his own because he is feeling so bad."

I brought him his socks and shoes, and sat down to help him get them on.

He immediately perked up and started on the process again. His little brother did something silly and he cracked a small smile.

He packed up and made it out the door.

It was much more charitable for me to remember that he is normally so good at getting himself ready, and if he isn't that must mean something was up. It wasn't a choice he was making, it was a situation he was dealing with. By not giving him the benefit of the doubt, I made things worse.

When I changed the story, my brain immediately kicked in with empathy. I know how it can feel to start the day with a hopeless mood but still have to slog through. I wanted to help him understand we were here for him, not pushing against him.

These situations play out over and over again. We tell ourselves these stories and react so frequently we don't even notice it. Going along with them and never questioning can lead to more and more difficult interactions.

Here are some other benefits when you take the time to reframe other's actions to positive intent:

-Promoting Trust: assuming positive intent builds trust among individuals. People are more likely to reciprocate as well.

-Enhancing Collaboration: encourages teamwork and collaboration by assuming others' actions are motivated by goodwill.

-Creating a Supportive Environment: assuming positive intent generates a more understanding atmosphere.

-Cultivating a Culture of Respect: promotes a culture where respect for one another's thoughts, actions, and decisions is upheld.

How can you tell it is time to reassess the story in your head? When you notice a judgment.

My judgment of my son was: "He isn't getting ready for school the way I think he should."

Should statement. My own expectations applied to him. My feeling that his performance wasn't good enough. All of that came from the story I was telling myself.

When I noticed that it wasn't matching up to reality, I was able to recover. It is even better if I don't wait until there is proof.

Start with positive intent - that the other person is doing their best, is trying their hardest, has a plan you don't see. Let that guide the story you are telling yourself, and watch as the empathy and connection comes naturally.

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