Empathy Examples: Stories of Compassionate Connections 

January 11, 2016
Younger hand holding an older person hand

Over the holidays I was thinking about some real-life stories that I sometimes work into my training programs. The four anecdotes below help me help those I train make Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training stick for their participants. I find the anecdotes helpful when I’m presenting concepts such as Empathic Listening, Precipitating Factors, and the Integrated Experience.

I encourage you to share your own experiences with friends, family, coworkers, or even in the comments section below. And if you’re a Certified Instructor, work your anecdotes into your trainings too! Or create an activity around empathy stories, where your participants share theirs as well.

Here are some thoughts I use to help those I train stay grounded and focused on the realities of the people around us, and those we support.

1. “I’m not invisible.”

When I travel through airports, I notice folks who may seem invisible.

For example, have you ever paid attention to the attendants who are stationed in airport bathrooms? In the men’s rooms (as I can only speak to this sector), some have a table and mouthwash. Their job is to keep the bathroom they’re assigned to, clean, sanitary, and nice for us to visit for only a few minutes. Can you imagine how nasty an airport bathroom could become in just one day, if these folks were not so strategically positioned?

By mentioning this, I’m not trying in any way to diminish anyone’s value, station in life, or contribution to the greater good. Rather, I try to go out of my way to say hello, tell them “Thank you,” or contribute to their tip jars. Their response is often one of amazement that someone noticed they were there.

Whenever I can, I try to erase the “in” from “invisible.”

2. “I’m still in here.”

A caregiver in a recent training of mine told the following story.

She worked in a setting that cares for persons with dementia. She shared that a lady she supports with dementia was at a medical appointment. The lady’s daughter was with her at the appointment. The doctor carried on for quite some time and dispensed an inordinate amount of diagnostic observations, medical terminology, and advice to the daughter. The mother waited patiently for this very learned physician to finish. He then asked the daughter if she had any questions about her mother’s situation.

The mother with dementia said, “I’m still in here. So now that you told my daughter all that stuff, can you please tell me?”

3. “I still matter.”

Have you ever been walking and encountered folks who are homeless? Have you ever crossed to the other side of the street, or redirected your gaze to avoid eye contact, and pretended they were not really there?

Come on now, be honest. I have, and I was not proud of myself when I did.

Another time, I was in downtown Indianapolis for my job and I was walking out of a restaurant after a meal. I noticed a couple quietly sitting on the sidewalk, with a sign that said, “Homeless vet. No job. No food.”

So this time I decided to engage, not avoid. I asked if I could sit down and talk to them for a while. I also had a bag of leftovers and asked if they minded if I left the food. The man immediately gave the leftovers to his wife.

As he began to talk, I just listened. He thanked me for the food and just for stopping. He went on to tell me how he had served in Iraq, came home, and worked construction. As the economy tightened, both he and his wife had lost their jobs, their home, and much of their dignity. This young man placed his life in harm’s way, for me, and for you. He thanked me repeatedly for the food, for stopping and listening to his story. I thanked him repeatedly for his service.

He did not need or deserve my pity, just my respect.

I try to no longer avoid the homeless, or pretend they don’t exist.

4. “I’m not stupid.”

A number of years ago at a school for students with special needs, I had a conversation with a 13-year-old student. He was a person with Down syndrome. He asked to talk to me one day. He said:

“Heh, Boardman. I know I am not all that smart because I have that syndrome thing, and guess I will have it for quite a while. But I just hate it when people talk to me like I am stupid.”

I learned a lot from a very insightful young man that day.

We have choices.

We have choices each and every day with those we encounter within our circle of influence, our work, and our life space. They may have had different opportunities than we have had.

When provided the chance, consider what you can do to help others become more visible; how you can talk to, not through others; how you can respect, not disrespect a person in need; and how to value, not devalue those who do not appear just like us.

Remember: “I’m not invisible.” “I’m still in here.” “I still matter.” And “I’m not stupid.”

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