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Is Anybody Listening?

Is Anybody Listening?

Have You Had Your Daily Dose of Empathy?

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"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They're either speaking or preparing to speak. They're filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people's lives."

-– Stephen Covey, author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People"


Over fifty years ago, my parents were sent by the Rebbe to serve as his emissaries here, in Toronto, Canada. Though Toronto is a flourishing Jewish community today, the spiritual terrain that awaited them then was far bleaker. Their mission was to reach out to the Jewish community, and enrich spiritual life by opening more avenues of Jewish education and observance.

In addition to the adjustment of newly married life and starting a family, my mother had a hard time adjusting to her new role in the community. She found herself in an alien culture far from home, needing to learn a foreign language, living under extreme financial constraints.

During her visits to New York, my mother was privileged to have private audiences with the Rebbe on many occasions. Since her father was living thousands of miles away in Israel and her mother had tragically passed away soon before her marriage, my mother felt especially close to the Rebbe, whom she regarded as a surrogate parent. She spoke candidly with him about the hurdles of adjusting to her new life.

The Rebbe would listen, full of compassion. And then, after acknowledging her struggles, he added simply, "Who is to say that somewhere else would be better?"

As a child, I often heard this story repeated by my mother.

To this day, so many years later, my mother remembers the Rebbe's response and how these words carried her through the ensuing years, helping to lighten her burden. Whenever she felt overwhelmed by her situation, she reminded herself that there was no guarantee that she wouldn't be meeting similar or harsher challenges elsewhere.

The Rebbe showed empathy. He listened with total concentration and acknowledged what my mother was experiencing, from her frame of reference. He didn't dismiss her concerns but felt at one with her suffering. He allowed her to fully express her frustrations, without any judgement or condemnation. And only after identifying with her did he venture to suggest a perspective that broadened her own, allowing her to see beyond her difficulty to a more enriched outlook that gave her some comfort and direction.


Gregorio Billikopf, who specializes in Labor Management for the University of California Davis, uses the analogy of the Panama Canal—which he crossed many times in his youth traveling from his home in Chile to New York—for effective empathetic listening.

The Panama Canal was built for ships to travel easily between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The special challenge involved in the construction of the canal was that the landmass that separates the oceans – and therefore the canal that would be built upon it – is well above sea level. How do we hoist ships up into this canal and then lower them back down on the other side?

Therefore the canal was built with "locks" that serve as water lifts. The ship goes through a set of gates into a lock chamber where more water pours in through valves, thus elevating the ship to the level of the Canal. The ship crosses the Continental Divide, and is then lowered back to sea level on the opposite side of the isthmus in a lock with lowered water level.

A suffering individual conversing with another who is not in an identical emotional strait is comparable to the water level behind a set of closed locks being much higher than that of the next compartment. With disparate water levels, there is a build-up of pressure behind the closed locks, and if one were to open the gates, the flow would be unidirectional. Similarly, one who is restraining his emotions needs a release, and when that release comes, he is unlikely to be receptive to constructive input.

The role of the listener is to allow the individual to open the lock gates. When he does, the water will gush out. During this venting process, there is still too much pressure for a person to consider other perspectives. Only after the water level has levelled off does it begin to flow evenly back and forth.

The role of the listener is to help empty the large reservoirs of emotion, anger, stress, frustration and other negative feelings until the individual can see more clearly.


This ultimately is the magical effect of empathy. It has been proven to have even physical, medicinal value.

In "Living Beyond Limits," David Spiegel documents an experiment at Stanford University on women with advanced breast cancer who were placed in support groups. By then, the cancer had spread throughout their bodies and there was little or nothing doctors could do.

The women found that the only place they could openly discuss their feelings was at their support group. Their families and friends held such dread talking about the illness, but with other women facing the same harsh reality, they were able to cry and weep, to rage against the unfairness, and be utterly free to express their emotions without guilt. They were also were able to show care and empathy for each other by offering emotional support, hugs and tears.

To the surprise of the physicians who had set up the groups, there was a powerful medical effect on the women in these groups. These women lived twice as long as comparable breast cancer patients who did not have such groups, an average of thirty-seven months versus nineteen months.


A human being has the need to be understood deeply. We all want to be appreciated and recognized for who we are and what we experience. The quality of feeling "known" is a powerful healing force.

Even at the age of two, toddlers will begin to display the fundamental behavior of empathy by comforting or showing concern for others. By four years, most children have the ability to understand that other people may have differing beliefs.

By showing empathy, we emulate the G‑d-like attribute of caring for others by being sensitive to their situations and offering our compassion.

The healing power of empathic support helped prolong the lives of women with life-threatening illnesses. It provides just as much comfort and solace for all types of suffering, traumatic experiences or emotional wounds.


Who is to say that somewhere else will be better?

Somewhere else may not offer a better alternative to our situation, but someone else listening and understanding may.

Empathy is a priceless gift. Let that someone be you.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of five popular books.
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Tamara March 5, 2014

Empathy I simply loved this article. In few words you really expressed what is hard to explain...at least for me. Beautiful sentiment. Reply

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