17 June, 2019

Finding a balance: empathy and open debate

As I mentioned last week, over the last year or so my posts have been developing on a theme. The theme was first mentioned in one of my Gifts of Infertility series, where I talked about developing Compassion and Empathy.

So now, when I talk often about how thinking about my own situation, and about hurtful comments or attitudes towards me because I do not have children, I realise that this process has helped me better understand others. It has reminded me, when it is easy to forget, to be more compassionate to and strive for empathy towards others. I’ve been a bit concerned that my posts might have become a bit preachy, although really, what I have been sharing is how my own thinking has developed. And reminding myself to step back, be open, and be kind.

I've been thinking about this too, because I’m very conscious of discussions throughout society in recent years about increased sensitivity, of avoiding triggers. The questions about freedom of speech* and how far we should go to try to consider others, about how to have hard discussions that are still respectful, and about when it is unkind and unnecessary to do so are not completely resolved. A conversation in the comments of a previous post here were an example of this debate.

I’m trying to find a balance between my own indignation at attitudes about parents and non-parents, or comments that might trigger (a loaded word in itself these days) my own hurt, and my wish to keep dialogue open. I want to keep a dialogue open, because I believe that is how people learn - how we learn about others, and how they learn about us. I haven’t quite been able to reconcile the two in my mind, except for saying that I want everyone to feel they can have open, honest, discussions, ensuring at the same time that these need to be kind, considerate, outward-looking and open-minded.

Wishful thinking?

And have you been able to reconcile this?

* in the broad sense of the phrase, not the US Constitutional definition.


  1. It is really hard to walk that line between compassion, empathy, and sensitivity... to try to understand someone else and want to be understood without offense. I feel like for me, trigger warnings are to warn the fresh or deeply traumatized, so that a conversation can continue on a tough topic but those who would find it troubling can extricate themselves. It is downright impossible to discuss hard issues without offending people, I just hope that people can extend the thought that growth happens when you offend someone accidentally and then stick around to hear why it was offensive, and then work to understand how to do better next time. Empathy is at the heart of everything, I think -- trying to get where someone is on the inside when they do something hurtful on the outside, and realizing that you can't always get through to someone who is hurting, oblivious, or simply doesn't want to hear the other side (which is sadly frequent, in this weird internet/social media bubble of surrounding yourself with like-minds). It's a work in progress. I feel like in my job where I work with children who lash out because they are hurt, and parents who lash out because they are desperate to find a way to help their children (and educators are easy targets), trying to get to what is causing the anger/offense/awfulness and understand their point of view is something I have to do, a LOT. But it isn't easy and it leaves me exhausted and sometimes sobby at the end of the day. It's worth it though to try to set aside my personal feelings and try for what's best for my student. With people who have been in a similar situation as you and then seem to forget what it feels like to be marginalized when they get to a different resolution, that is so frustrating because you feel like once you had common ground, and now there are careless comments that marginalize you when you were already marginalized once before. For me, figuring out how to say what I need to to signal my hurt and educate, and then if it's repetitive then reevaluating the relationship, those are things that help me. God it's so much harder than just snapping back or disappearing. Great, thought-provoking post!

  2. It's a delicate balance I walk all the time, too. I want to be sensitive to others but not incapacitate myself with sensitivity. I want to be assertive about ignorance, but not shut down a conversation. I deal a lot about opennness, but that doesn't mean interacting without boundaries. I agree that it's tricky.