Imagining empathy

I’ve noticed that many people at the start of their playwork training get mixed up between the words “reflective” and “reflexive” practice.  Interesting, because their meanings are complete opposites.  To let our emotions sweep us up, to act without forethought, is easy.  It is as smooth as a leg’s upwards flight, when the doctor strikes with his little hammer.  But to pause first, to hold all those lizard-brain impulses in check while we actually think is far harder.  But it’s a prerequisite for empathy, our first step outside ourselves.

A colleague was telling me a heartbreaking story, with seasoned anguish and resolve mixing in her face.  Easy, polite, meaningless words came up my throat.

“I can’t imagine.”

What do those words even mean – I can’t imagine how hard that was for you?  Can’t imagine how you coped?  The phrase is cold, no less cruel for its cliche.  It erects a wall that is pretending to be polite, because what these words really mean I refuse to think about that happening to me.  Resting in the privilege of it not having happened to them, the listener rejects to consider how easily positions might be reversed.

So I tried to imagine what she had felt, what I might feel in her place, knowing that it was impossible.  In that small pause, the emotions showed small indications of her fear, her bravery.  They were signposts for how we might sustain a real conversation about an experience that defies explanation, how I might respond to what she was sharing in a way that, if it couldn’t be useful, might at least be respectful, human, authentic.  Pretty soon we were both in tears.

I can’t imagine shuts the other person down, makes it all about the listener.  It’s a reflex of self-protection.

The skills developed through reflection include pausing in discomfort, listening, imagining, empathizing – these help us learn how to be present with others, in their pain and their survival.

It might, over time, allow us to do the same in our own.

If you’re interested in learning more about the professional approach my writing is based in, take a look at Pop-Up Adventure Play‘s online course in practical, reflective playwork practice.


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