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Edwin Rutsch 1

My Personal Empathy Story

Healing a Conflict in my Family with Empathy

A year ago at Christmas we were having a family gathering and a conflict erupted between my sister-in-law and mother.  The initiating act was that my sister-in-law had bought some gifts for my parents to give to the young children. The children had found the gifts hidden behind a chair and that got my sister-in-law angry at the children for getting into and opening the gifts before the official gift giving time. Also, she was angry with my mother for having put the gifts behind the chair where the kids could find them.  This turned into an extremely heated argument between my mother and sister-in-law. There was finger pointing, heated words, anger, upset, comments like ”I won't let you talk to me that way!”, etc.  It looked like the whole evening might blow up with family members going home angry.

I thought, “  I’m wanting to create a culture of empathy. I need to step into this in an empathic way.” The very thought of stepping into this conflict sent ice cycles through the core of my being.  It was actually quite scary, but I went over and started empathizing with my sister-in-law by listening to what she said and reflecting back what I was hearing. As mentioned, empathic listening is one tool that can help facilitate emotional (mirrored) empathic connection.

For example, “I’m hearing you are upset that the kids got into the gifts, is that what you're saying?”

Then I did the same empathizing with my mother. “I’m hearing you say that you don’t want to be talked at in this angry and demeaning way, is that correct?” I listened for a few minutes until she felt she was heard and then I went back and forth between the two of them in this fashion for maybe 15 minutes.

Mother, Jenny Rutsch (video)

After each of them was heard by me, the tension between the two of them went down a few notches. Then I said, “Would the two of you now be willing to talk directly with each other?  One person can talk and the other can reflect what they are hearing until the speaker is fully heard. Then it will be the listeners turn to speak and the other person to reflect.  You will each get to be fully heard to your satisfaction.”

They agreed and they started going back and forth. My mother would say something that upset my sister-in-law and she would want to jump in with an immediate reply.  I’d then step in and say, “You’ll have a chance to speak and be fully heard as soon as Jenny is fully heard. Would you just let her know what you heard her say? So it took some doing, but I was able keep them on track to keep this empathic listening process going.

The rest of the family had been on the periphery watching this and they started to step into the dialog. Suddenly we were in a full family ‘empathy circle’ with me, my mother, sister-in-law, brother, father and my girlfriend all engaging in this empathic back and forth dialog. It was an effort, but I was able to facilitate this empathic listening with one person choosing who they would speak to and that person reflecting the emotions they were hearing until the speaker felt they had expressed them self and had been understood.

All kinds of emotions started coming up and we went deeper into the underlying emotional issues for the next hour. A major turning point came up when my sister-in-law expressed that she didn’t feel she was fully accepted into the family because of various reasons, including coming from a poorer Russian family background.  She didn’t have a feeling of acceptance and belonging.  At that point my father, who is generally a fairly reserved person, stepped up and shared how he felt she had contributed a lot to the family, how money wasn’t an issue with him since he had come to America as a poor refugee, how he valued her presence and that he loved her. They both got up in the middle of the room and had this big hug.

Father, Gerhard Rutsch  (video)

The dialog then continued for a while longer and both my mother and sister-in-law got up and had big hugs.  At the end, I have this memory of both of them sitting on the sofa together, snuggled up and ‘melted’ into each other and holding hands. For me this event is an example of emotional or mirrored empathy. I was advocating for a culture of empathy, which is to create an environment of mutual empathic connection and understanding among everyone.  

Follow-Up Empathic Actions

This event had some follow up empathic actions as well.  A couple of months later, my sister and my sister-in-law, who had an underlying conflict for the past 8 years were willing to take part in a Restorative Empathy Circle that I facilitated. This is a more formalized empathic connection building  process for addressing conflict.  After four hours they were able to effectively address emotional issues they had been dealing with for these many years.  This then led to a series of other family empathy circles that we have done since.

At the end of a four hour Restorative Empathy Circle with my sister and sister-in-law.

Also, below is an email my sister-in-law sent me after the family ‘empathy circle.’ It shows the beneficial effect of the empathy.

Dear Edwin,

…I wanted to say that I really appreciate the empathy circle that you conducted ... on Christmas. It was for the first time since I joined the family 8 years ago that we were able to talk and to listen to each other. It was very meaningful to be heard and empathized with, as well as to hear for the first time how others feel. I don't think I ever felt heard by your Mom before that night, because she has a tendency to interrupt and talk only about her life. Thank you for helping her listen and reflect. I think that evening brought some healing to our family relationships. While I am not proud of getting angry at Mom and prompting you to conduct an empathy circle, I am very thankful that you helped the evening end in such a positive way.

…That night as we drove home, C. and I talked about the empathy circle we experienced. C. said he thought you are very good at mediating and helping others practice reflective listening. Since then, any time we have a misunderstanding, we try to sit down and have reflective listening. If I feel myself getting frustrated with C., instead of just talking angrily I tell him, "I think I need an empathy circle," and it really helps us. It helps me de-escalate because I know I will be heard without having to yell and be angry, and it helps him because he knows that if he is listening and reflecting, I will speak calmly and respectfully. So we both win, and our communication is improving.

While my parents were visiting here, C. and I talked with my Mom about a couple of things that have stood between us for years, causing both of us a lot of pain. C. took charge as our mediator and helped us talk, listen, and reflect. Of course, he does not have as much experience as you in doing empathy circles, so it wasn't as smooth, especially initially, but the presence of a mediator who guided us was very helpful nevertheless. My Mom and I understood that we love each other and do not want to hurt each other. We agreed that we both want to have a relationship, but we need to learn to communicate in a new, positive and constructive way in order to enjoy the relationship. I think we achieved empathy, and it is gradually bringing healing to our relationship. Empathy can be contagious, don't you think? With love, V.