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Empathic failure and the advent of the Kindness Campaign

Last night, after shutting off our computers, my husband and I dragged ourselves into the messy kitchen for a good cleaning. It was late, we were tired and it had been a trying day with the kids.

As I scrubbed the dinner dishes, and he scrubbed the table and counters, instead of talking about the big stuff (read: the children), I vented about a writing project I am working on.

My husband offered several suggestions, to which I said nothing.

Finally he said, exasperated, "Well, of course, I've given up you taking any advice from me. I'm not even sure why you ask."

And somehow my irritating situation had shifted focus, turned into something else, and got lost completely.

I said, "You know what? When I talk to you? I think there is a misunderstanding about what I want."

He said, "Sometimes I think all you want is sympathy."

I said, "You say that as if it is a bad thing."

Empathic failure. In the above conversation, you could so easily switch our roles. I'm equally guilty of empathic failure at times. We all do it with varying degrees of frequency.

Why are we so convinced sympathy leads to weakness and wallowing?

Why are we all so eager to fix it and get ourselves and those around us quickly back on track, moved on?

Why is it so wrong to let someone have a period of negative emotion, infused with the faith that once processed, will move on?

In fact, sometimes I wonder if the moving on bit gets flummoxed because we don't know---and thus don't teach our children---how to handle the negative emotions, how to have them, process them and carry forth after forgiving and letting go. Perhaps we also get mired in too much or too little sympathy, and spin in a cycle of frustration and irritation.

I can say I've noticed sympathy is often out of balance these days: it is either distractedly unconditional without end, or frustratedly eager to hit resolution and cease.

And perhaps that means time is the issue.

In any given moment there are at least two things I am doing, and five or so behind me needing doing but not getting gotten to.

I am often distracted and overly busy. I realize this, and bemoan it nearly daily. It's easy for my mind to chant: it's in your control to change it. It's much harder to try and figure out what gets dropped. Quit doing laundry? Stop cleaning the house? Quit working? Every option explored has negative repercussions that are thus far unacceptable.

I tell myself things will get easier in the fall when the children return to school. And I know this is true. I can constrain working time to childcare times, do chores quickly on either end, and use the rest to interact in a quality way with the kids.

It's not a little ironic that in the summer---with no commitments or schedule to keep---I feel like we have less time than during the school year when time is so scripted and conscripted.

I remain steadfast in my refusal to complicate our lives any more with any additional obligations. I limit the children to one, maximum two, activities, and thus far it is under my control to not select the time intensive ones, such as swim team, which requires almost daily commitment. At 5. Competitive swim team daily. (Yes, I am shaking my head.)

And yet, we are still too busy.

I often feel the need to chuck it all and move with my family to a tent in the wilderness. What are we all working so hard for, if the cost is our relations to one another?

Sympathy and empathy are still out of balance. Knowing is one thing, being and doing quite another level altogether.

Sometimes, I simply sit and listen when I ought to prod. Sometimes, I prod when I ought to simply sit and listen. I know on my end, when I feel frustrated or angry, it is due to my expectations:

Why can't she just hear what I'm saying?

Why does he always have to try and solve it?

I wish she would quit trying to play devil's advocate!

Can he just tell me he understands?

Once I said to my husband that I had actually not been looking for a solution (yet) just a sympathetic ear, he switched gears.

Perhaps we need to provide roadmaps to our needs. Perhaps if we get lost on the way trying to meet another's needs we need to say simply, I'm sorry, and switch gears.

This week, after reading a post by Slouching Mom, our family started a Kindness Campaign. We're all meant to slow down, pay attention to road signs in the ones we love, and enjoy the journey together, with kindness. We're using paper clips in plastic cups (one for each member of the family) to mark where we've been and done. In the center of our cups is the Forfeit cup. It's meant to be empty at the end of the week, and our other cups full. We're trying to earn a big fun family outing. I don't have a back-up plan because failure isn't an option. The only option is to extend the game another week, and try again.

Hopefully, we will arrive soon at our destination, where failure of empathy, sympathy and kindness are infrequent. The exception, rather than the rule.

And once this is ingrained and familiar to my children, perhaps they will see (and give) it out more often in the world.

Balance of concern. Respect. Courtesy. Kindness.

ETA: Intriguingly, Ceclilieaux has written about empathic failure, as failed friendships.

ADDITION: Explaining the Kindness Campaign

In the photo at the top of this post, you can see the cups we use for the Kindness Campaign. Here is how it works:

One cup for every family member (Parents too!)
One cup for forfeit
Large supply of common household item (we used paperclips)

Put 10 paperclips in each cup (including forfeit cup)

RULE: Use kind words in kind voice, courtesy, consideration and respect towards one another. Catch one another being nice!

GOAL: Empty forfeit cup at end of week

REWARD: Special family outing!

LOSE one paperclip for breaking with kindness (put lost paperclip in forfeit cup)

GAIN one paperclip for being kind, random act of kindness (get from forfeit cup)

If at the end of the week the forfeit cup isn't empty, keep going until it is. Then enjoy the reward!

Also, there isn't to be a comparison of who has more or less paperclips. The only thing evaluated is forfeit cup.

Make sure to involve children when setting up and playing the game.

Note: I don't reward gratuitous kindness that come from a "gain a paperclip" motivation. I just say thanks.

Let me know if you have any more questions! :)

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert


Anonymous said…
I think we're all trying to instill the same values. [read sloughing mum too.]
Best wishes to you and yours
S said…
Heh -- mcewen called me "Sloughing Mom" -- I like that better than my own moniker!! ;)

I will be eager to hear how you all do with your kindness campaign. Will you keep us posted?

Also, the hubs and I have THAT conversation all the time. Y'know, where he starts to offer advice, and I say, "Hey! I don't want advice, I just want empathy!," and he just...looks at me. I don't mean to put him down, only to state that he does not understand that conversational style of bearing witness. He wants to FIX.
thailandchani said…
I read that on Slouching Mom, too, and thought about what a great idea that is.

Imagine it extending from individual families to communities?

The sympathy thing.. I have some thoughts on that.. but they're only peripherally relevant to your point here.

To stick to your post, I think you've asked some really important questions here... ones that ultimately boil down to making a choice.

When you choose something that's not working, you can always choose again. Choose something else.

It sounds like you're doing that. The overly busy lifestyle benefits no one.

Truly. It doesn't. You miss out on what we're really here on this planet for.. and what we're really here to experience.

Just my sorng baht.


atypical said…
Ironically, I tend to struggle with empathetic failure on my own part as relating to the kids and hub. I say this is ironic because, throughout my life, empathy has ALWAYS been pretty much my strongest quality. Somehow though, when I am covered in flour and soapsuds, and someone needs to let off steam... well, sometimes I react to the fact that this is the 3ooth interruption since washing began and forget to pay attention to the fact that this is the first time THIS person has approached me with THIS issue.

I won't mention empathetic "failures" as perpetrated by other family members because I am trying REALLY hard not to blow off any more steam in that area right now. LOL

Unknown said…
well, yes, I think that time and not know what's required of us do drastically reduce our chances of meeting the needs of those around us - a special hats off to you for reaching to the edges of mommy blogging today and doing a little family/marriage blogging and doing it just so well!
Anonymous said…
It's hard for me to do with Fiona. And she noticed. She said to me recently, "You don't know how to be a mom to big kids! You only know how to take care of babies." Well, OK, mostly this is just jealousy aimed at her little brother, but I admit that I expect her to act mature all the way across the board, not just here and there.

Maybe I'm doing something wrong, though, because when I try to talk to my husband, he usually gets mad, too. Hmmm.
Julie Pippert said…
Atypical, yes, like I confessed, the failure is often my own. I can absolutely say that I have been in that same situation, of forgetting that this is a pause moment. And it's so easy to get to that point of frustration when you have so much to do and can't get anything completed due to interruptions...I'd say just now that's my hot button. I am always at someone's beck and call.


Sm, yeah I think personality and gender come into play a bit.


Karen, it occurred to me when I decided to do this I was talking about that verboten topic, my marriage. I'm glad it came across okay. :)


McEwen, I think so too. :)


Chani, I think "very busy" is simply the way things are with two small kids, two adults, two jobs, house, cars, hobbies, etc. The have it all! But, in our case, we are rather simple and basic, especially compared. Also, much of it isn't actually a choice now---it's a choice made that we must continue, find the best way to manage. House is bought, kids are here, pets are here, etc.

I keep in mind that "this too shall pass." Yes, a lot of days it means no time to think and barely a moment to register the good things, but when you do catch those, they feel even more important.

I'd be interested if you were to, for example, blog about sympathy. :)


The cup idea, as I wrote, became a bit of a metaphor for a joke my husband and I have about "filling one's bucket." It comes from a self-help seminar from a job. Anyway, as we add paper clips to cups, we are adding kindness into ourselves. I think when I feel more balanced and full, I get less frustrated less easily.
"We don't know---and thus don't teach our children---how to handle the negative emotions, how to have them, process them and carry forth after forgiving and letting go." This should be engraved in every school, every workplace and in every home.

As is the notion -- as I've had it pointed -- that we all are on the wrong side of this from time to time.

I didn't understand how the game works, though. You get to put a paper clip every time what? And what's the forfeit cup? Intriguing idea. Don't have a family, tho.
Snoskred said…
Men do that thing - the other half is the captain of fix it. A lot of times he has great ideas though, so I've grown to be ok with it.

You know what this reminds me of? That TV show called Wife Swap. We get the UK version here, which is different to the US one I think.

The format is always the same - they take two wives who have completely opposing views on most things, and swap them. The wives leave a manual - basically their daily what I do type of thing - and for the first week the wives have to follow the *other* wife's routine. Then, they have a rule change day, where the new wife changes all the rules. At the end of two weeks, the husbands and wives meet, there is usually a confrontation which can be pretty stormy, and usually neither party chooses to listen to each other. Then. Some weeks later the camera crew goes back, and 99% of the time the rule changes the new wife brought in have actually been implemented in some way by the original wife.

Take for example, wife 1 who cleaned for 8 hours a day swapped with Wife 2 who didn't clean very much - she let her partner do a lot of the work. On rule change day Wife 2 declared there are better things in life than cleaning and dropped it back to virtually nothing, and wife 1 spent about 12 hours cleaning Wife 2's house from top to bottom. Some weeks later, Wife 1 has cut her cleaning way down and also the kids have got involved in cleaning their rooms rather than Wife 1 having to do it all the time. Wife 2 is cleaning more than she used to, they share the chores now.. and she has a new respect for her partner who was working a long day and then coming home to do chores while she did.. not much.

The families on this show generally are much better off for the experience. That is simply because -

**Sometimes you can't see how you could improve things until someone else comes in and lives it the way you do it, then makes changes which do improve things**

I hear you when you say you chant - it's in your control to change it - but how can you know what to change? It's not like we get instruction manuals with the answers to everything in life handed to us. We generally do what we saw our parents did - or do the exact opposite.

IE my mother loves to iron, spends hours on her weekends off just ironing. Until we moved here, my iron was only pulled out of the cupboard maybe once every six months and then only to iron one thing. I saw how much time she wasted on that. I didn't want to spend my life ironing - so I found tricks, ways around it.

So what can you drop? What could be done more efficiently? What things could you do less often which wouldn't affect much but would give you extra time?

Number one I would suggest is to look at the tasks you do now, and see if you can streamline - make them more efficient. How you can do that is by asking questions about these things - eg - and note these are just questions I would throw at myself if I felt I was spending too much time on a chore like washing, I'm just putting them out there as an example -

How often do you wash now? Perhaps wash less often, if you can manage it. Not only is it better for you time wise but it would be better for the environment too. How much time do you spend picking up dirty washing? Do the kids have laundry hampers in their rooms and do they put their dirty clothes in them? If your house is all on one level, could you look at laundry hampers with castor rollers on them like the ones I got from Ikea, that I can just roll straight to the washing machine and throw the clothes in? Do you sort at the machine, or elsewhere in the house? I use the hampers to sort, I find it quicker to sort clothes when you take them off than when you go to wash them. What kind of appliances are you using? Could you get something which could do more washing in a load? Could you get something which does more drying in a load? Do you hang out washing on the line? I don't - too many spiders climbed into my clothes, and it takes up quite a bit of time to hang them. I throw them into the dryer - energy inefficient, but quicker. I also pay a little more to have green energy and I paid more to get a dryer that uses less energy, so I'm not so concerned with energy consumption.

Maybe if we all discuss how we do things in our various households, we could find better ideas for ourselves in those posts and people could offer suggestions - without meaning any offense, and with nobody taking any. A Hump Day Hmmm topic, perhaps? Sort of like a chore workshop? I'd love to hear better ways I can do things, maybe other people would too.

I'd also love the tips we would share with each other - eg - in a front load washing machine (a craze which has not swept the USA yet, it seems) you do not need to use detergent. All you need is a few drops of essential oil or squeeze in some fresh lemon juice if you like - if you want the clothes to smell nice. The machine does the washing part and detergent actually gets in the way of that. Nobody who makes washing machines will tell you this because they are scared that consumers will freak out - and so will the washing powder manufacturers. I have heaps of tips like that because I worked in the industry. :)

Note - this isn't a comment intended to fix, but intended to be thought provoking. ;)

Catherine said…
Wow...very cool new look! Did you do it yourself, or..? I'd love to have tabs like you have up top...

I've also been avoiding blogs in general, due to potential Harry spoilers, so I'm trying to get caught back up now...and will hopefully be hhmmming again soon too...
Lawyer Mama said…
I love this idea. Love it. T & I frequently have the same sort of disconnect.

I'm ba-ack!
Anonymous said…
"Sometimes, I simply sit and listen when I ought to prod. Sometimes, I prod when I ought to simply sit and listen."

Yes. I have that problem. You put it very, very well.
Kyla said…
You just explained to me a fight Josh and I have very often that I can never quite put my finger on. I am venting my frustrations and he offers me advice, which I discount for one reason or another, and then he says "Why do you even ASK? You never listen to my suggestions." and then I'm peeved because I don't know what just happened and why we both feel so frustrated. It is because I am looking for a sympathetic ear and he is looking to fix it. Wow. I can't believe that never clicked before. But you are right, we need to understand what WE need, and then give others a really can make a difference, I think.
Have you two read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus yet? Sounds like you lifted this exchange directly from the book ;-)
thailandchani said…
Julie.. I was hoping you would blog about it... seriously. :)

Girlplustwo said…
it's the meta-communicating more often than the actual surface stuff isn't it? a kindness campaign is perfect and i hope it spreads.
Christine said…
oh julie.

i think you so right that we fail to empathize sometime and want people to just move on or solve the problem. isn't it just ok sometimes to be sad and down and need a friend to say "that so sucks, i get it."

wonderful idea with game. we once did this kind of things with beans and it was great. maybe i should try again. . .
Aliki2006 said…
We tried this once with beads, and it failed, but I think we put the focus more on Liam, since at the time Tessa was an infant and couldn't contribute much (!).

We're doing something similar, too (you know, just because something fails ONCE doesn't mean it will again) so we'll see how it goes. Maybe we'll compare notes?
Anonymous said…
Utterly inspirational, my friend. I'm printing it out and sharing it with my husband.
Jen said…
What? You're in my head this week? You hit the nail on the head. Really. And I think men are hardwired (or maybe just molded that way culturally) to be fixers. Sympathetic listening? hard for them to do (but with proper training...)
ewe are here said…
Sometimes I too just want to vent and have my husband listen and not try and 'fix'. I actually thinks he gets this sometimes...not always...but enough.

The cup of kindness sounds like a great idea.
Julie Pippert said…
Snos, I saw about five minutes once of Wife Swap and was so horrified I've never looked back. I'm afraid I'll turn into salt, LOL. I'm glad you enjoy it, though.

I take your point, of course that we can gain from outside perspective.

But I want to answer a few of your ???s:

1. Whaaa? Front loaders are ALL the rage here in the US, well, speaking for New England and the Republic. In fact, in NE, a lot of people LINE DRY...for green reasons.

2. Whaaaa? Wash less often? Dude, I have TWO CHILDREN and TWO ADULTS. One load per day is FULL. This amount of washing must be done regardless. I either spend a little time once a day, or spend an entire day (and then some) once a week.

3. Whaaa? Ironing? When one can wear wash-n-wear and use Downey Wrinkle Free?

I am the QUEEN of efficiency...ask anyone who loves me anyway LOL.

I stay on top of it, a little every day, then don't get too far behind or overwhelmed. But it does mean busy.

As for the too busy...I shall have to simply endure for one more month until school starts.

See, that's the main point: this is a temporary things where I have everything competing for attention at once, instead of during the school year when I can better compartmentalize things.

I was just letting off steam. :)
Julie Pippert said…
Does anyone want to do that? Post our favorite "make life easier" tips? I'll ask in a post, too.

I'll gladly host.


Catherine, I got a template. There should be a link at the bottom or side. I did customize it and will gladly share tips of how. There are link pages with color codes, custom code for function, etc. Thanks!


LM, welcome back! Woop woop, the Lawyer Mama is in da houz!


Emily, thanks.


Kyla, I'm so glad. I love finding insight, but I also love providing it. :)


Jeff! Bite your tongue man! Plagiarizing! I think not! I have heard much about that book but confess to not reading it. I am dreadful about non-fiction, esp. self-help. I want, like, the "for dummies" version. No, too long. Maybe Cliff Notes. ;)

Now I feel the need to get my husband to come on and verify the veracity of the exchange...



Chani, arr err...will see what comes to mind and if I can do anything quality...

But thanks for the compliment of believing I can. :)


Jen, thanks and me too.


Christine, absolutely. You know, we use versions of this game for different things. It's been a while since we pulled it out, but it is usually fairly effective short-term.


Aliki, yeah, Persistence is getting a little out of it, but it's not as clear to her as to Patience. I have to handle it age-appropriately, which often means Not Fair (but hey, not a bad side lesson). Yeah let's compare notes!


Jenny, thanks and I'm glad and...should I be worried? LOL


Jen M, oh is there proper training? LOL ;)


Ewe, absolutely, me too. I'm going to try to give better signals. :)
Anonymous said…
Just Yes to all of it. Great post.

I think we may need to set up the kindness game in our house. I wrote a children's story called the smile that traveled a million miles that had the same basic theme.

Thanks for the rules, they were great, especially the one about the gratuitous kindness.

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