Top Ten List: Give Empathy for the Holidays

How is Christmas like a day at the job? Give up? You get to do all the work; and the big guy in the suit gets all the credit. [Note: if I have to explain the joke, it


Mirror neurons going off in Bei-Bei, the panda, with animal handler, stage one of empathy

is not funny.] ‘Tis the season – to be materialistic and buy and spend. I am exhausted just thinking about it. Therefore, the recommendation?

Give empathy for the holidays. You never need an excuse to be empathic; but during the holidays it just might make sense to slow down and expand one’s listening even more diligently. My approach to this top ten list count down? I am taking off the list material things; but allowing spending [some] money on activities that are empathic or are direct enablers of empathy.

The idea? Give an experience – one worth receiving – whatever that would look like. This is a count-down. For example:

(10) Do not give a food processor; rather make the other person a gourmet meal. Do not give a vacuum cleaner [that would be a disaster]; take over doing a set of chores that need doing for week (or other defined time frame). It makes sense to document this by means of a certificate or diploma, as they say, suitable for framing.

(9) I saw a Restaurant with a sign: “No Wi-Fi – Talk to One another”. That is the right idea. If you like the menu, make the reservation and go there. They do not have a sign? Make your own sign and bring it along, even if the restaurant does have wi-fi.

(8) Sign up the receiver as a member at the local Art Institute and go as a guest with the recipient of the gift. Art is a significant enabler of empathy. But do not take my word for it – according to the celebrated enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, one of the main moments of the experience of beauty is the communicability of feeling – stage one of empathy.

(7) Sessions in yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, or other spiritual exercises – where you get to do something

(6) Same idea as above, but with a conventional focus – two tickets to the theatre, opera, or dance with time scheduled for conversation both before and after to discuss the experience

(5) A massage or time in a sensory deprivation tank where one is able to relax or expand one’s introspection (a significant enabler of empathy). Caution: This is “product placement” – actually a service – see It’s a trip.

(4) Every MacBook Pro has the technology to make a movie. Make a movie in which you acknowledge and recognize the other person – your partner, boss, employee, colleague, peer, friend, enemy, cousin, grandmother, etc. If you have talent as an aspiring stand up comedian, now is the time. Comedy is closely related to empathy – in both cases a boundary is traversed. In one case, comedy with aggressive or sexual overtones; in the other case, empathy, the focus is on recognition of one’s shared humanity. Remember, you have to create a context in which empathy is made present.

(4a) Same idea as above only … Write a poem or short story in which you are self-expressed about the relationship, what is means to you, how it works, and what it means as a possibility.

(3) If the relationship is an intimate one, then it makes sense to provide an intimate experience. Depending on trends and tastes (and I acknowledge that I need to get out more), this may be easier for her than him. Still, he may usefully concentrate on things she values, already alluded to throughout this post, such as time for conversation, demonstrated affection and affinity, and if such has been in short supply for any reason, family time including the children.

(3a) There are a set of attitudes and behaviors for which empathy is an enabler, though they are distinct from empathy (this is the opposite of things that enable empathy such as art and relaxation). The consequences of our actions escape us and while stupidity is not a crime, sometimes maybe it ought to be. Therefore, forgiveness was invented (according to Hannah Arendt, invented by Jesus of Nazareth (a judgment with which I am in substantial agreement)). Other things in the same ballpark as forgiveness include compassion and make-a-wish. In surveys on prosocial behaviors, compassion is the phenomena most often mistaken for empathy. Heavens knows, the world needs expanded compassion – and expanded empathy. If you can make someone’s wish come true – and that looks a puppy – then it is an option.

(2) Instead of a $1200 diamond pendant, how about ten sessions with your empathic listener of choice? There used to be a profession dedicated to a gracious and generous listening – and one can still find such practitioners of such a seemingly rare art of listening – it is called “psychotherapy”. Today it is not that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) lacks empathy; it is just not a priority for CBT. It is not that psychiatry lacks empathy; heck, Heinz Kohut was a psychiatrist; it is just that today many psychiatrists get the most satisfaction by writing a prescription at the end of the session. It is not that life coaching lacks empathy, it is just that the coach is committed to actionable outcomes and you are going to be invited to commit to “action items” by the end of the session. Nothing wrong with that; it is just not empathy; it is what the market [supposedly] wants. On the other hand, I know of a case where he was thinking of having the conversation and the supportive partner decided it made sense to step in with some financial support. Here the money – in addition to material support – really did express an empathic listening. Never say never. It is significant that a gift certificate for psychotherapy services – unlike a spa treatment – would land like “you are messed up”. There is a “to do” for the profession implied here. Caution: if this sounds like “there is something wrong with you” or “you need to be fixed,” then do not do it. Come to think of it, maybe this is a gift you had better give to yourself.

And the number one gift of empathy for the holidays is

(1) Turn off your smart phone [no texting!], and talk – have a sustained conversation – with the other person.

© Lou Agosta and the Chicago Empathy ProjectTop Ten List in Giving Empathy for the Holidays

Categories: Einfühlung, empathic interpretation, Empathy, empathy consulting, mirror neurons, narrative empathy

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