When Experience Gets in the Way of Empathy

The conversation went a little like this: ‘Others (i.e. you) don’t really know what this is about. to which I said, ‘Yes, but I’ve been through the same sort of season in the past.’ There was tacit agreement.

The person had to agree. They knew my story, and they knew I understood. But their point was, But you’re not there now. It was only later – 24-hours later – that God nudged me about this conversation.

It was as if the Holy Spirit were saying, ‘Your experience matters, and is a good asset to offer the person, but in this case, it got in the way of empathy.’ Sure, I was in a conversation of challenge. It wasn’t a conversation where neither of us felt comfortable, and it was a necessary conversation, but I was shown to have fallen short in this particular interchange.

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Experience is good, except when it places us in the position where we’re above empathy. Experience offers understanding but it can fall short of empathy.

Experience demonstrates understanding but only empathy shows an interest in the impact of what is being faced.

Experience compares whereas empathy seeks to get close, endeavouring to truly understand what could be still misunderstood.

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Experience demonstrates understanding for what was experienced in the past, but it isn’t understanding for what is happening in the present – that’s empathy.

We may have experienced a trial in the past that helps the person before us, but that experience is useless to them unless there is empathy enough to imagine my experience is not the same as yours.

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Your experience – no matter how similar sounding it is – is not the same as mine. It isn’t experienced in the same period, with the same people, in the same circumstances, or in the same place. Nearly all the elements are different.

Bring experience into the arena of interaction, but don’t leave understanding there. Take it all the way to empathy. Experience is the door through which we enter and explore. That exploration is empathy.

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