A Real-Life Example of Empathy in Action

As my husband and I sat gazing proudly across the arena at our high school junior, we could see immediately that he was NOT in a good mood.  It was Presidents’ Day, and we had driven 150 miles that morning to hear him sing.  We were facing another 150 miles back home after the concert, and we could tell already that the trip  had as much potential for fun and laughs as sitting down to do our taxes.

When we met up after the concert, he gave us a perfunctory hug before launching into his litany of complaints:  “I told you the concert would be obnoxiously long, didn’t I?  Sitting on those bleachers for three hours really killed my back!  Our hotel accommodations were awful – we were as far away from the door as you could get.  Had to start at least FIFTEEN minutes early just to get there on time!  And the food!  Don’t even get me started!  I didn’t know scrambled eggs and sausage could taste so bad!”

Instead of countering with a lecture on gratitude for having been able to experience such a weekend of singing with a premier choir, or delivering an explanation of the logistics of feeding, housing, and transporting a thousand high schoolers, or even reminding him that we hadn’t seen him in four days – we responded with empathy.

To his comments about the concert we replied, “Yeah, it was pretty long, wasn’t it?  The music was awesome, but it was a long time to sit.”

To the hotel complaint we replied, “That happened to us once.  We were at a youth conference, and our wing was so far out it seemed like we had to walk a MILE to get to the front.”

And when he was ranting about the food, we came back with, “Oh, that’s a shame.  You’d think that catered food would be really outstanding, not lousy.”

By the time we got to the car, all he wanted to do was get something to eat. But even his request for a restaurant was negative:  “Let’s go to Burger King; I’m in the mood for something greasy and salty and really unhealthy.”

After three Burger Shots he was ready to talk about the more pleasant events of the weekend.  You see, he’d really had an awesome time and already couldn’t wait to return next year – but before he could get to the good stuff, he’d had to work through his exhaustion and general grumpiness.

Had we given in to our parental instincts to interrupt his raving with lectures, we’d have found ourselves with a sullen, defensive passenger on the trip home.  But because he’d had a chance to vent – AND to feel like he’d been heard and understood – he was actually quite pleasant company.  (Okay, he slept most the way home, but still. . .!)

Empathy works – you just have to practice so it becomes second nature.


  1. I’m not an expert yet but taxes aren’t THAT bad. I don’t remember the food being terrible at the All-State thing. I actually recall it as being quite pleasant, especially breakfast. Of course I was wallowing (or enjoying?) loneliness at the time so my judgment may be clouded. I remember talking about your empathy, unbeknownst to me at the time, with my friends in high school or sometime around there. I was talking about how I didn’t mind venting to my parents because they always listened and sometimes even agreed with me. Those that had had you as a teacher before would say, “See your mom is awesome. I wish she was MY mom!”

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