The power of empathy: how being heard calms the body.

For a while now I have been pondering how Focusing differs from Mindfulness and for me one of the key factors is the place of an empathic listener when we practice Focusing in pairs. This relationship with a companion or listener changes the whole process for me. There is a lot that happens in the interaction that changes the process so what I write next is about just one aspect of that.

It starts with this question, why does the presence of another matter and what do they bring to the relationship?

In 2013, I was lucky enough to be present at a day conference with Stephen Porges, a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of North Carolina. His studies on the nervous system are well known in Somatic Experiencing and other trauma healing disciplines. His model, the polyvagal theory has many dimensions to it but one essential aspect is what he calls the "social engagement system" - in essence this is all about how our safety is regulated by interaction with others.

We are mammals and all mammals need social interaction, what Porges calls "neural exercise”, to develop safety, receptivity, resourcefulness and resilience. Our mammal and human brains expect co-regulation and reciprocity from others - you could even say we need it. We don't just need an absence of danger, we need a strong social engagement, with plenty of safety cues to help us feel safe, relax and process our experience. According to Porges many of these safety cues (and their opposite - threat) are embodied in and communicated through the face and voice. Just think of a warm and friendly smile, or even the loving eyes of a puppy. And interestingly he says, the hierarchy of calming starts with the ears during co regulation with another person. Another persons prosodic voice (that is - warm and melodic intonations) and I would say empathic voice, shifts the nervous system to a calmer and more receptive state. And this is measurable and predictable in a laboratory setting, when we hear prosodic words the muscles in the ear relax, then the muscles in the face and eyes, our heart calms, our breathing deepens and our sympathetic nervous system down regulates - we become calmer and feel safer.

So how does this relates to Focusing? Over the years of teaching, I have observed that a sensitive listener can make a huge difference. And I have seen how we seem to be able to sense the listeners empathy (or lack of it). It is not so much about a technique or the exact words we say, but more about our empathic presence. The “right” words may make a difference but without prosody, would be meaningless. It is amazing how we can sense the feeling tone behind the listeners words. My son who is only four, can tell if I am doing pretend empathy - where I am saying empathic things but am implicitly holding tightly onto an agenda. He knows it instinctively it seems - even if I am not aware of it. My nervous system gives away what I am truly feeling! Our empathy is transmitted through the voice.

Why is it so important to have this sense of safety in our bodies? Well, aside from it feeling better!, when we feel safe, we have ability to be more present to ourselves, we can be more creative and bold, we can slow down and process information. We can hold our own experience with greater clarity and self empathy. What is brought by an empathic listener are implicit messages "You're safe, you are important, I hear you" and all of this literally shifts the state of our nervous system… and brings healing to parts of us that have never heard that message.

For me, I think the lack of these "messages" and their effect on the nervous system, was one of the things that made solo meditation practice difficult for me. It can be one of the downsides of solo mindfulness; it’s lack of interaction and therefore how it can miss out on the power of empathic company.

I deeply love the listening that Focusing teaching embodies, and the healing it can bring, and
of course there is much much more to empathy and to human relationships than what i describe above. It is far more profound and mysterious. Yet knowing more about how strongly empathy can effect our bodies helps me to respect it even more.

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