Empathy Relationships

How to build the trust necessary for empathic conversations

I’ve written a couple pieces on empathy that I want to expand on here. In one I argue that empathy requires understanding unconscious motivations, and in the other I argue that acquiring empathy requires confrontation so as to provoke these subconscious feelings. One important piece I’ve left out, however, is how to build relationships in which these confrontations are possible.

At first I felt that a willingness to engage could be presupposed — if you want to discuss sex techniques you don’t begin with a couple’s first kiss, you assume both parties are already having sex and that they’re just looking for advice on how to do it better. However, just as so many sex problems are really intimacy problems, perhaps so much of our inability to empathize with each other begins with our unwillingness to enter into conversations capable of producing empathy.

One of my favorite talks about interpersonal relationships is The Power Of Vulnerability by Brené Brown. Brown is a social work researcher that studies human connection: why do some people lean into it while others remain afraid to engage? Her basic finding is that those who feel most loved are those most willing to love without expectations. Those who feel belonging are those willing to trust without proof. A willingness to be vulnerable is essential for connection, she emphasizes.

The Power of Vulnerability, by Brené Brown. TEDx Houston

Looking back, I probably wrote this piece on entitlement with Brown’s speech in mind. In that piece I argue that entitlement — unearned expectations of love and protection — is necessary to build trust and confidence in people and society. (The responsibility to love and protect do exist but they cannot be prerequisites for our expectations.) Brown would put it slightly differently: You must feel you are deserving of love before you are able to love and be loved. But I think we’re getting at the same idea: you can’t rely on evidence before you put your faith in others.

So great, I now feel comfortable saying that empathic connection can only occur if individuals are willing to be vulnerable without waiting for proof that their vulnerability will not cause them shame or hurt. (It may, and that has to be ok.) But this still feels lacking, because it’s not enough to say what is necessary from the individual to be empathized with, there has to also be something the person wanting to empathize can do to foster a safe environment for human connection.

Indeed I do think we can facilitate circumstances that help someone make this leap into vulnerability.

A friend of mine mentioned that she’s much more willing to open up to someone else who’s already opened up to her. She took issue with my argument requiring confrontation for empathy because she felt confrontation would cause her to shut down, not open up. And I think there’s validity to that. Before we can confront or criticize someone we need to have a level of trust so they feel, as Brown would put it, that their vulnerability will lead to a greater sense of belonging rather than to exclusion. If you know I suffer from depression you are more likely to open up about your own depression. If you know I’m an Israel-supporter you may be more likely to share your own support of Israel.

But waiting for someone else to show they’re on the same team is also inadequate precisely because empathy is more important for those of different circumstances than those who already share conditions or beliefs. It is more important that mentally healthy folks know what depression is like than fellow sufferers (even if camaraderie has its own supportive value). And it is more important that Israel-supporters empathize with Palestinians (and vice-a-versa) than with other Israel-supporters.

So how do we engender trust when we have little in common?

I don’t think it’s enough to share our own vulnerability. Yes, giving someone else power by sharing our fear and pain and shame may engender some trust, but really we’re just ensuring a cold war mentality. Mutually assured destruction is no way to form relationships, connection, or empathy. Instead, we have to show that our integrity is not mercurial; that we will not betray trust lightly. We have to show the other person that even if they betray our trust we will not betray theirs, that they are entitled to our confidence even if they don’t live up to their responsibility to keep ours. This is not to say that we should be arrogant or condescending. We shouldn’t expect them to fail nor should we pretend we are perfectly honorable. So along with our integrity we need to display a wisdom of ourselves and of the human experience.

Those people who have the most integrity and wisdom in my life have a few things in common:

They are perpetually curious. Curiosity is a form of humility because it stems from the belief that our feelings and needs are not the most interesting or important. A truly curious person cannot take sides in any conflict because they are aware of how little they understand. A truly curious person is always asking questions and always appreciates the answers even if they don’t agree. A truly curious person treats every conversation as a learning opportunity rather than a convincing exercise; they seek understanding, not agreement.

They are confident. As I’ve alluded to multiple times, those who let fear and self-doubt guide their interactions are not ready to be trusted. If you want someone to open up to you, you have to show that you are confident enough in yourself not to fall apart when attacked. Confidence means you are thoughtful and recognize that even if someone is attacking your character, you know that character is not immutable or static and so you don’t feel inferior for having a flaw exposed. A truly confident (and curious) person wouldn’t need to be told they sound racist in a diplomatic way to take the words to heart.

Brown says that those with the greatest skill at interconnectedness are those that say “I love you” first. There is a necessary confidence to this act. There is also a necessary curiosity to this act — as Meryl Streep has said, “any good actor knows that “I love you” is really a question”. Telling someone “I love you” (whether friend or love interest), if done in a state of curiosity, humility, and confidence can go a long way in building trust and connection.

And so finally, I think I’ve figured out how to build relationships where empathy is possible: Show your integrity and wisdom through curiosity, humility, and confidence and you will draw someone into trusting you; leap into vulnerability through faith in the other person and you allow them the chance to empathize with you.