By Pastor Elasto Marume
The importance of empathy and listening in the pastoral counselling is the missing jewel in every discussion. These are like the backbone of professional counselling for spiritual therapy. They are taken as the good mixture of ingredients in a well prepared meal which makes all the taste buds to respond naturally. These two are the first and most needed keys to the saint’s inner treasure box of life. Somewhere in the body of a person, is the invisible inner box where the feelings and emotions are hidden. Michael Lawson (1989, p.18) says, ”We all know that thoughts and feelings are available for immediate use and for future reference, carefully filed and sorted by our brain’s intricate storage and retrieval mechanism”.
These two (empathy and listening) are like the master key to one’s door of life which the pastor should use to be allowed to enter into and help from within. The most important thing to be understood is that there can never be better empathetic practiced without the listening aspect. Also listening will never be effective without empathy. They are interwoven. It is like a hand in the glove. I need to define the two first of all, in order for us to get along in the same level of understanding.
Empathy is the understanding of emotional feelings of others. It is the mirroring of feelings of someone’s suffering. Gill Hasson (2012: p.105) says, “Mirror neurons are distinctive brain cells that fire, not just when you perform an action, but also when you see or hear others carry out an action, too”.
It is the identifying as well as the experiencing of the emotional feelings of other people. Michael Jacobs (1988: p.29) defines it as; “The ability to empathize, or to identify with how others might be feeling…. Understanding intuitively how the others might be feeling. Empathy, or identification, means the ability to put oneself in someone’s shoes, to get into their skin, to experience what they might be experiencing”. Dennis Brown and Jonathan Pedder (1991: p.68) say, “It is known to be the capacity to empathize or putting oneself intuitively in another’s shoes and identifying with him in his predicament”.
It is believed that empathy and sensitivity come hand in hand. It’s not like you can be empathetic and insensitive to a person at the same time. It is a known fact that people who show empathy toward others as they tell their stories are known to be better parents, spouses, nurses, doctors, managers, community leaders, church leaders, and/or other leaders of any kind of institution or organization. Deeper levels of rapport and trust are created and maintained through the use of empathetic rhythms in all walks of life. Human kind cannot afford to live without it because of emotional turbulences caused by different things in life. There will be no joy, peace, harmony, as well emotional healing if there is no empathy in human lives. Like a pain killer to the sufferer when it’s properly applied, so is empathy for the one with emotional sickness. Without it, we can feel lonely within any relationship. Empathy builds and heals relationships.
It is a skill applied like playing a piano. (Gill Hasson 2012: p.103) says, “Strike the right emotional cord: develop empathy”. He continues to define its importance by saying, “The key skill that you need to be one of these emotional intelligent people is empathy. Having empathy simply means that you are willing to try and understand someone’s situation, their point of view, their thoughts and feelings. You interested in one’s situation and readiness to respond to their needs and feelings without dismissing them and judging them”. A skilled pastor uses this great tool (empathy) to draw the meanings of emotions and feelings from the Christian’s facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, changing of sitting positions eye contacts and so forth. “They can be described as part of human personalities” David Bick, 1997, p.49). The same tool (empathy) will open doors to the art of questioning. Good questions will clarify the facts and encourage rich dialogue. There are times when conversation just goes dead, the same tool (empathy) will help to restart the dialogue as well as to encourage reflection. “The good news is that research shows that empathy can be learned” (Quote by David F. Swink).
Misunderstanding of emotions and feelings can lead to unnecessary conflict situations in counselling sessions. It helps pastors to understand and treat Christians, according to their emotional state. Without it, there will be a problem of asking wrong questions because of not understanding the feelings of the Christian. This will interrupt the flow and causing the Christian to lose focus.
In some cases the pastor needs to have an understanding of some events which took place some time ago may be in the childhood age. The Christian doesn’t see them as important factors as they tell their story. In other cases he or she just doesn’t know how much the past has contributed to the situation. “The trouble is, the greater the trauma, the more difficult that becomes” Michael Lawson (1989, p.63). Empathy is the only thing which can pick up those hidden feelings which needs to be addressed. The story of Elizabeth illustrates more of some of the things which reflect life behind the walls of silence. In the book called Psychodynamic Perspectives Of Abuse (2000: p.165), we read; “Through attunement she began to trust therapeutic relationship. That was the time she was able to identify her own feelings”.
Attunement goes beyond empathy, (“Erskine, 1998: p.236” Class notes). When applied to one’s situation, it brings the sense of belonging. Gill Hasson, (2012: p.53) says, “It cause client to feel emotionally connected to others – to feel that you are acknowledged, accepted, included and that you belong. To feel that you are understood, valued and respected. To feel liked, loved, admired, appreciated, approved of, cared for and needed. To feel trusted, supported and, when appropriate forgiven”. Attunement will also help the pastor to know when to speak, when to ask a question, when to be quiet and allow the Christian to be quiet as well. Pauses and silence are also helpful to both the Christian and the pastor.
Empathy is like a compass, it directs the pastor into the unknown world of the Christian. It helps the pastor to identify and understand feelings expressed through both vocal and body messages. Other Christians don’t know how to say out what they think or feel. This is the part which empathy plays a big role. Empathetically like a compass, the pastor will be able to read between the lines as the Christian gives the clues through the voice or actions. Richard Nelson-Jones (2003: p.58), says, sometimes clients say “I feel” when they mean “I think”.
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.”
Having poor empathy skills can lead to serious consequences. It can affect the economy of the nation. Companies, organizations and institutions can suffer from loss and lack of growth because of a lack of empathy. Daniel Goleman and other emotional intelligence and workplace competency researchers have consistently identified empathy as a core component of emotional intelligence and a powerful predictor of success in many professions. Lack of empathy can cause companies to make catastrophic blunders that alienate their customers or employees and it can even incite violence.