Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
How can I learn to be more like you? What I mean is that you seem to have such a clear-headed framework for dealing with other people in such a thoughtful and compassionate way. You seem to be able to get to the heart of people’s psychological needs, and anticipate what communication strategy will have the most success.
So while I recognize that you always know the most appropriate approach to any interpersonal situation, I have a hard time answering questions like “what would Richard Wade advise?” on my own. These kinds of matters are often quite mysterious to me. I’m sure many of your readers would appreciate any insight into your thought process, any conceptual framework or concrete methodology that one could internalize and apply to re-derive the kinds of conclusions you seem to come to. I don’t even know how to name the thing that I’m asking for, which makes it hard for me to find such a resource on my own. A few pointers to some core principles or further reading would be ideal.
I know you’re busy so please do not feel any obligation to reply. If you were able to understand what I am asking for, then I hope you’ll consider posting some pointers. Thanks again for sharing your insight in your advice column — your post Richard Asks: A Dialogue (of sorts) With Two Christians: How Would You Have Responded? in particular was absolutely wonderful. Keep up the great work.
Don’t be more like me. Be more like you.
Whatever you admire in someone else, you do so because that quality is in you, even if it’s not yet as developed as you would like it to be. If you didn’t already have that quality in you, either you would not even notice it in the other person, or you would not consider it to be an admirable trait. Nothing needs to be added on to you, only discovered in you.
Please understand that I don’t “always know the most appropriate approach to any interpersonal situation.” Even when I do know, I’m subject to impatience, pride, selfishness, and fatigue, and sometimes I really screw up. Answering a letter is one thing; responding face-to-face in the present moment is quite another.
I get hundreds of letters, and I read every one, but there are far more than I can ever hope to answer even privately. A few of them I just stare at, open-mouthed, having no idea what to suggest about this tragic, painful mess. Having counseled many thousands of addicted people has left me with a high tolerance for the sensation of helplessness. It’s not aloofness or apathy, just the willingness to feel heartache and still keep trying.
The letters that I can answer I ponder over for several days or even weeks, brooding and fretting about them, faintly hearing my unconscious mind working on them. Then come many hours of writing and polishing.
After all that, some people completely disagree with something I suggest, and often they have a good point. That’s why I really like having the comments in this column, because having a variety of viewpoints can be more valuable.
But you asked for some pointers or recommended reading. I don’t have any particular books I would recommend; maybe some of our very well-read readers here have some recommendations for the kind of things you’re talking about. For this post, I’ll discuss one particular skill from which everyone can benefit.
For greater success in interpersonal relations, in helping others, and in being more persuasive, the most important skill is empathy, the ability to accurately imagine what another person is feeling in a given situation. We all have some basic ability to do this; most people will wince when they see someone catch their finger in a three-ring binder as it snaps closed, but we can hone that skill to be much more subtle, more accurate, and more immediately available. Very often, just hearing that someone else understands what we’re going through can be encouraging, even healing, even though no identifiable “solution” accompanies that empathy.
You can develop your skill of empathy in two ways: Frequently ask yourself how you might feel in their shoes, BUT you must imagine yourself with only their present strengths and limitations, and only their present sense of power or powerlessness. For instance, if you are older than them, do not imagine yourself in their situation with the greater self-assurance that your greater experience might have given you. Conversely, if you’re younger, do not imagine yourself with the energy, passion, and sense of invulnerability that your youth might be giving you. Imagine yourself as they presently are.
The other way to improve your empathy is to simply ask them how they feel. If you ask openly and listen non-judgmentally, they’ll tell you. Listen, nod, repeat back just enough so they can confirm that you’re hearing them accurately, and do not add any “should” or “should not” to your description of how they feel. How they feel is the way it is right now. There are no “right” or “wrong” feelings, there’s just what they feel, and your hopefully accurate perception of what they feel.
After a while you can use your empathy skills to become more persuasive, not just more understanding. Using empathy, you can speak with your ears, rather than with your mouth. You can accurately imagine what it is like for the other person to hear your words, and so you can choose your words carefully to have the best possible effect in helping them to see a different, hopefully more positive point of view.
I hesitated to publish my response to your letter because your very kind compliments might make this appear to be an ego trip for me, but I decided to take that risk because I can use some help. I get too many letters, and I’m sure that thousands of times as many people are hurting in similar ways but never write letters to anyone. There is so much strife and suffering surrounding the social revulsion to atheism that we all need to get out there helping each other to figure out these awful dilemmas, conundrums and predicaments, and not leave people to go through them alone.
Not everyone needs to publish an advice column or have professional counselor training, but everyone, anyone can reach into their own best human nature and draw out compassion, patience, affection, gentle humor, and simple, honest caring, even when there’s not much that can be done except to hold hands and endure. You don’t have to be a “wise man,” or wonder what Richard Wade would advise.
You just have to:
Only offer suggestions that you would be willing to try.
Don’t take it personally if your suggestions are declined.
Honestly acknowledge when you don’t know what to suggest.
Just be there with them anyway.