Can we protect ourselves through/with/thanks to empathy?

Empathy has been, and continues to be defined in various different terms. American social psychologists Daniel Batson describes it most simply as “a motivation oriented towards the other”, Heinz Kohut, Austrian-born developer of Self-Psychology terms it as the “capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person”, while philosopher Khen Lampert explains “[Empathy] is what happens when we leave our own bodies… and find ourselves, either momentarily or for a longer period of time in the mind of the other. We observe reality through her eyes, feel her emotions, share in her pain.”

The concept of protected empathy in Verbal Aikido deals with the cognitive part of empathy rather than affective part of it. That is to say, protected empathy aims to sincerely understand and recognize what the attacker is saying, thinking or feeling, while avoiding being drawn into an emotional or judgmental position. The ‘protected’ part also concerns fostering the blameless belief that one’s objective is not to ‘fix’ the other person’s pain; we are simply using empathy to underline the importance of the other’s views and keep a positive energy channel open.

Entering into the attacker’s mind-space in this way, whether with protected empathy or otherwise, often creates a destabilization. The element of surprise is often the reason for this and therefore the risk of a continued negative reaction remains present, thus the Inner Smile ([…]) needs to be kept active to anticipate a further attack. For example:

Attacker: “You’ve always been jealous of me!”

Aikidoist: “[…] What do you mean?”

Attacker: “You know exactly what I mean! Don’t try to deny it!”

Aikidoist: “OK. […] Well, when do you think the jealousy started?”

As you may notice, the Aikidoist is neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the attacker therefore, in this example, neither submitting nor entering into conflict. The search to understand the other’s point of view must be sincere and even though destabilization is often the result of Irimi, it is not effective long term if destabilization is the objective. This means that if you immediately try to counter an attack with a response that seems to search for understanding but is not aimed at truly understanding their point of view, an Ai-ki cannot be performed and the attack often escalates further, or ends with a negative emotional result. For example:

Attacker: “You’ve always been jealous of me!”

Untrained target: “What?”

Attacker: “You know exactly what I mean! Don’t try to deny it!”

Untrained target: “Since when?”

Attacker: “So now you’re calling me a liar?”

Untrained target: “What on earth are you talking about?”

Due to the opposing position it presents, defensive questioning is considered to be partaking in the combat and therefore not taking the position of protected empathy. The Verbal Aikido practitioner is encouraged to search continuously for his or her own meaning of empathy to enable a greater understanding of both the practice and purpose of it.

See also:

Verbal stretching – Is everybody a selfish hypocrytical manipulator?

What if you could manage conflict in three steps ?

Accompanying verbal attacks with the aikido principles – ‘Irimi’ (step 2)

Discover your strengths and weaknesses in a verbal attack with our Verbal Immunity Check-up

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