John Florez: Empathy, the language of no borders

Published: Saturday, Aug. 31 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Understanding takes time: time to listen, to appreciate and to care. We should ask ourselves, how many times have we met someone and just listened, rather than trying to say something bright? How many times have we tried listening without judging? Empathy is the international language needed to communicate.

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My mother only spoke Spanish and her neighbor only spoke Greek, yet they relished their over-the-fence visits each morning talking about family and flowers — the important things. Where there is caring, there is understanding. It's called empathy. It's the international language all humans understand. Its magic is listening.

Have you ever noticed the people you are attracted to are the ones that radiate a sense of caring and listening? They don't judge, they just listen. And when they speak, they respond to what you have said and feel. It's a trait great leaders have. They listen and are able to articulate what is in the hearts and minds of people. In doing so, they convey a sense of understanding and caring — empathy. Societies are held together by a set of common values and a sense of caring for each other.

Karl Menninger, psychiatrist and founder of the Menninger Clinic, in his book, "Love Against Hate" wrote, "I believe listening to be one of the most powerful and influential techniques of human intercourse ... listening — uncritical but attentive listening." He said he learned that not from technical literature, such as the American Journal of Psychiatry, rather in the Ladies' Home Journal in an article written by Brenda Ueland. She wrote, "When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand." She said she discovered this when she went to parties and tried to say bright things, but then tired from trying so hard and had to drink lots of coffee to keep it up. Later on, she decided when going to a party she would listen with affection to anyone who would talk to her and, "... be in their shoes when they talk ... This person is showing me his soul. It is a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk just now, but presently he will begin to think, not just automatically to talk. He will show his true self. Then he will be wonderfully alive." What a gift to share with another human being.

We seem to be losing that gift of listening and empathy. In this fast changing, complex and more impersonal world, we often don't take the time to listen to others, to know who they are and what they are going through. We are too busy thinking about ourselves. Some have labeled us a narcissistic society. We seem to be losing the gift of caring for one another — to share, to listen and try to be in another one's shoes when we meet them. Now we seem to be quick to judge without taking the time to understand. We are losing the empathy needed to have the caring society we talk about and reflected in the public policies some of our lawmakers pass. Some are quick to judge the poor as simply wanting to be on the public dole without understanding who they are or what they go through. Maybe if lawmakers walked in their shoes, they would have empathy.

Understanding takes time: time to listen, to appreciate and to care. We should ask ourselves, how many times have we met someone and just listened, rather than trying to say something bright? How many times have we tried listening without judging? Empathy is the international language needed to communicate. It has no borders. Like my Mexican mother and her Greek neighbor who took the time to talk about important things, family and flowers — we should do the same.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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