What I Learned About Empathy From A Lizard

A little less than a year ago during a trip to Florida with my wife, we came to be in the possession of a small brown anole lizard. Shortly after 7:00 AM on the morning of April 16th, Natalie burst into the hotel room to show me her “prized” catch. To this day, two questions remained unanswered.

1. Why was my wife using her Saturday morning to hunt for lizards in the bushes outside our hotel? 2. How in the world was she able to grab one bare handed as they darted in and out of hiding at super speed?

What resulted from her adventures in the great outdoors was one of the least awesome “discussions” of our entire marriage.

Can you imagine two otherwise mature, responsible, reasonably successful adults yelling at each other in a hotel room over a LIZARD?

As we outlined earlier in the week, Alfred Adler described empathy as “Seeing with the eyes of another, hearing with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.” At that moment in the hotel, I certainly wasn’t taking time to appreciate the perspective and needs of my wife. I’m also confident no effort was made to understand the heart behind why she was so adamant that we take the lizard home to share with our girls. In all my efforts to communicate the fundamental flaws with her line of thinking, I missed the most critical point. It wasn’t about the statistical likelihood of the lizard surviving the 1,000 mile trip home in a hotel coffee cup, or the cost required to buy supplies to care for the lizard. It wasn’t the fact that we’d be illegally transporting wildlife across state lines. (I’m not sure if there are actual laws against this, but it didn’t seem wise at the time to let ignorance get in the way of my argument). It wasn’t even about not wanting to deal with the inevitable heartbreak my girls would face should the lizard prove to be mortal at some point in the future. Here’s what I was missing:

My wife, the woman I chose to love and serve, cared deeply about something I didn’t understand. Now for the part that truly disappoints me. Not only was I failing to come to a point of understanding with her heart on the issue, I failed to make any attempt to employ strategies that might help me do so.

Strategies for Improving Empathy

  • Create Times of Quiet: As aforementioned, neither my wife nor I were using our “inside” voices to have this conversation. We could have tried any number of ways to create quiet: changing environments, slowing down, speaking more softly, or even sitting as opposed to standing. Bottom line — we should have done something to promote an atmosphere conducive to really listening.
  • Ask Open-Ended Questions: In this particular instance, I couldn’t even muster a simple closed-ended question. The truth is I wasn’t asking questions of her because I was only focused on myself. As mentioned previously, being selfish only works if you want to destroy connection.
  • Stop and Listen: Once again, a huge swing and a miss. Even though I failed to ask her good questions, at a minimum, I could have stopped long enough to listen to what she was already saying.

For those of you scoring along at home…That would be three strikes, I’m out.

All of this made the return trip home from Florida an interesting one. With the lizard and coffee cup in tow, we drove the first several hundred miles without speaking to each other. (Does that count as creating times of quiet???). Then at some point I was able to humble myself, ask for her forgiveness, and start the process of practicing empathy with my wife. As a result, I came to understand the lizard was a way for my wife to connect with her daughters. Additionally, it provided the opportunity for Natalie to share a love of nature with four girls who value the same types of things. Lastly, it gave her the chance do something spontaneous and fun for them.

In the end, not surprisingly, Natalie was right. “Lizzie” survived the long trek back from Florida to Illinois, and brought with her a joy for my daughters I can scarcely describe. Back in the hotel room, I wasn’t taking any time to appreciate the perspective of their hearts either, and it almost cost me dearly. Now, I’m thankful for the opportunities Lizzie has afforded me to connect with my girls. This is especially true today despite the seemingly endless tears four little girls shed as we buried their beloved Lizzie in our backyard. Today, because of Lizzie, I was able to hold my girls tight, show them I love them, and have another chance to practice a little empathy.

A Call to Action

Over the next several days, identify a time with your wife or kids you failed to really listen to them on a particular subject. After you humbly apologize and ask for forgiveness, invite them to share again, this time while you truly seek to understand their heart on the matter. Challenge yourself and lead well!

Andrew

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