Empathy as a reflex | #3BQ

It’s harder than you think.

The PULSE 3 Big Questions book club has kicked off and already after the first week we’re learning things from each other and having great conversations.

One of the key points raised by authors Kara Powell and Brad Griffin is that the best thing that adults can do for teenagers and young adults is to listen. Not just hear the words they are saying and be formulating our response; really listen to what they are saying.

It’s a key plank of showing empathy, which is a very direct way to show we care about the person talking.

“The beginning of love for others is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear…Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In chapter 2, Kara and Brad make a point of noting that empathy = notice + care. It takes effort to listen and notice what people are saying and then express care about it. To paraphrase the great Ted Lasso, sometimes we’re too eager to be a chatterbox and not ready to spend enough time being a listenbox.

All too often we can think we see the answer to the problem and have a hard time keeping it in for when it’s our turn to talk. After all, as adults we bring years of experience and problem solving, and we may have even been in a similar situation to the young person. OF COURSE we can tell them how to fix it to save them the pain we went through! How great will it be for them that we were able to help them like that?!

Unfortunately, it really doesn’t help.

Part of showing empathy to someone is being willing to sit in the ashes with them, listening to what they are saying, and asking more questions about how they feel as a result of the issue they are talking about. Showing empathy to a young person says to them “Hey, I think you are important, and I care about you. I’m not here to judge you.”

It’s difficult to make empathy our reflex, when sympathy is the default. Empathy isn’t condescending or distant.

Empathy is close, warm, and inclusive.

As young people start to make decisions about their identity, their place of belonging, and their purpose in life, they need lots of supportive adults willing to travel with them on the journey.

As teenagers/young adults they are making these decisions for themselves for the first time (up until then, the adults who care for them have been making these decisions on their behalf), and they will make and re-make these decisions for the rest of their lives…as have we all.

As we notice things that young people are saying to us and offer care in response we get to be the beneficiaries of a developing an important, mutually life-giving relationship with them. One that offers many opportunities to share about our faith and encourage them in theirs. One that ultimately honours Jesus Christ through our willingness to take his message seriously, reflexively offering empathy, and helping young people know they are vital, valuable, and loved.

(P.S. You’re still welcome to join us if you’re willing to catch up the first three chapters!)

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Molk is the Senior Field Officer (North) and Young Adult ministry lead as a part of the PULSE team.

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