Looking For You: A Twist on Empathy

Dec 14, 2017

By Shannon Thompson

The soccer practice is drawing to a close. The head coach has left. I’ve stayed to watch the athletes wrapping up their drills – one in particular. Earlier, this athlete had been dribbling with just his prosthetic. I’d marveled. Now, he’s missing shot after shot. Finally, he hits the mark and his teammate murmurs something encouraging. The drill is over. The athlete storms across the field a short distance. There’s a painful urgency in his movements. Is he crying?

The athlete returns to the line and runs a few lengths with his teammates. Soon they’re done. A coach says something frustrated about fitness. I’m too far away to hear the specifics. The athlete picks up a chair and carries it to the sideline. Sitting down, he pulls his uniform over his head and leans his face into his hands. Although he’s stepped away from the group he hasn’t gone far. Does this mean he wants to be approached? Alone is available to him anywhere else if he wished it.

I make my way slowly – to give him time to change his mind or gain composure. I chat with another player in the doorway for a bit, then I say “hello” to one of the assistant coaches. The athlete’s position remains the same, although he’s removed his uniform from over his head. He knows I’m coming his way. I wander over and place a hand on his shoulder. “What’s up?” I ask. I was ready for him to tell me that he doesn’t want to talk - braced for it, honestly. But, he receives my presence well. Tear tracks run un-wiped down his cheeks.

“I’ve told you about this before,” he gasps between sharp inhales.

“The fatigue?” I asked.

“Yes, and the coaches thinking I’m tired because I’m not fit.”

Ah, yes, the comments about fitness I’d heard, clearly this athlete feels like they’re being directed at him. Perhaps they were.

“Do the coaches all know you have the sickle cell trait?” I asked, referring to the blood disorder that impairs his endurance frequently. He nods, he thinks that they do. Do they forget?

“I mean, I already have one leg,” the athlete said – his voice full with a frustration larger than his coaches’ comments.

“Why this too?” I asked. He nodded.

“Sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it.” Tears return to his eyes, his uniform recovers his face.

These are tough, tough moments, but they’re certainly a part of my role here. Many of you will recognize that what’s needed in this circumstance is empathy – the ability to understand and share another’s feelings. But, empathy is a nuanced skill. Applying it well requires care and sensitivity. Empathy is problematic: how can any of us truly understand what it’s like to look through the eyes of another? Especially a one-legged soccer player whose blood is permanently compromised? Yet, in countless similar encounters, and with the best of intentions, we all try.

The normal method is to try to draw a silver lining on the situation: “Look how well you’re doing considering you have these problems!” – this one has been used so much it doesn’t move him anymore; in fact, its grating. He doesn’t want to be good for a one-legged player. He wants to be good period. “You know, lots of people have problems, they’re just not as visible as yours – you’re not alone!” “Great,” he thinks, “now I’m self-centered, AND I have a blood disorder, and one leg.” “I understand, I remember when I had anemia for one summer. That was rough.” – You clearly don’t understand.

Research Professor, Brene Brown offers a terrific animation about empathy. She highlights the importance of just being present with a person where they’re at. Sometimes there’s nothing to say. Sometimes presence is enough.

With the athlete in my story I felt like my presence alone was not what he’d waited for. He’s known a lifetime of silence in response to his question, “why me and why this?” Normally such a determined and upbeat young man, I felt he’d temporarily tipped over the edge of his own capacity for coping. Just for this moment he was asking to be rescued. But how? I cannot relate to these particular problems, yet he wants to hear something. Silence won’t do, the tears ease and he waits.

One strategy of empathy that I’ve found to be very helpful is to ask questions about the others’ experience. Initially, I can’t feel what it’s like to be him, but I can ask questions to help myself understand better. The key to effective empathy does not lie in perfect understanding, it lies in the sincere desire to understand. Somehow, when a person can see that you care enough to try to understand what it's like to be them, some relief is brought to them.

I feel my breath has become as short as his. I’m aware of the precarious balance of empathy. I try to deepen. I sit down on the floor beside him. I honestly don’t know where to start so I read him the short quote from the poet Rumi that I love: “Don’t turn away. Keep your eyes on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.” I’m not sure he understands. I’m not sure I do either, but who does understand this circumstance? Why is a soccer player born with only one leg and sickle cell trait blood disorder? Perhaps it's better to sink deeper together into a misunderstanding that feels closer to the mystery than to try to find words for something for which there are none.

After a little silence I mused slowly, “That is an interesting question – why you’ve got both. Do you feel angry when you’re out there?” He nodded.

“I just don’t like them to think I’m lazy.”

“Because you’re precisely the opposite.”


“It’s hard when key people in your life don’t see you.”

“It is.”

There is another metaphor for empathy that is starting to take shape in my mind. The best guideline for using it that I can express now is, look for the other’s pain, and when you think you find it, place a hand on it. A similar response is how when something burns or stings we reflexively grasp it. That’s often the best we can do with an invisible pain – the kind where the wound is only below the surface. I think there’s value in looking for the place that hurts, even if you don’t find the wound. When a person gets to this point (and we’ve all been there – we’re all people), they’re tired of looking alone. I’m lost says the chair on the sideline of the field – the drama of the uniform over the head – please find me.

And so I sat on the floor and asked questions to find him. I read him a confusing poem. We sat confused together. It’s an interesting question of why you’re dealing with both of these things. I’m not sure if my hand found the pain, but for a little while I took over the search for him.

How do I sit beside you,
grieving a loss only yours,
seeking more than presence,
please, no more silence.

Perhaps as someone you don’t
wholly know
who’ll look
for what we don’t understand;
who feels for the wound
and on finding,
carefully places a hand.

About the Author 

Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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