Voboril: Empathy and its limitations
At the risk of concerning my mother by reciting good news and therefore requiring a kenahora, the firm’s phone has been ringing very steadily. Were we an entity focused purely on profit, this would be a welcome development.
But, actually, it is troubling. People do not usually call my work number to chat, but to seek help for any number of problems. Unfortunately, the problem business seems to be booming. Our community’s vague sense that the world is falling apart is supported by the seemingly infinite permutations of wrongdoing and inhuman malfeasance that continue to come across my desk.
I love being on the receiving end of these calls, not because I revel in suffering, but because it is a direct link to the service ethos that drives my life, because it is humbling and thrilling to have one’s counsel sought. Yet, wading into the struggles of others requires me to steel myself, to restrain my emotions, to be dispassionate and calm, at least as I present on the outside.
As any of my friends or family members or even brief acquaintances can attest, chill is not my natural disposition. One of the reasons that I am effective at my job is that I commit my whole heart and brain to the operation. I would be naïve to believe that there is not a bit of self-destruction resulting from this method.
When a prospective client calls me, they are inherently in the midst of a crisis, tossed adrift in a sea of angst and confusion. As I listen to the rage and frustration and sadness and helplessness, I cannot help but internalize these laments.
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However, although I listen actively and acknowledge the torrent of emotions, I am careful not to overly validate the stated concerns. I think that one of my chief roles at the early stage of a dispute is not to enlarge it, but to evaluate it objectively. Often this means identifying weaknesses at the outset, a strategy that is not always met with appreciation. People want me to tell them that they are unquestionably right, which is rarely the case. Instead of telling them what they want to hear, I tell them what I think, leaving them to determine how they want to proceed in the face of my initial advice.
What the caller does not know is that, regardless of how I react externally, I feel his or her or their stress acutely. It hits me, it churns inside me, it motivates me. I want to solve the problem, I want to make the wrongdoer rue their actions, and I want to ensconce the wronged in literal and figurative embraces. But this stress also puts me on edge; the hyperfocus both helpful to my duty and deleterious to my mental health. I am immediately tense and I have to take affirmative steps to relax my shoulders and jaw, to breathe out the stress that has been empathetically implanted in the recesses of my body and soul.
When this reaction is extrapolated across multiple prospective clients each day, the toll is exponential. Not only must I manage the emotional components of these cases, but also concoct strategies for resolution, organize my time in the face of my myriad other extracurricular responsibilities and desires, and do it all at the level that I expect of myself. On the outside, when I am often in ski or bike clothes or rolling around with Violet, it looks easy. It is not, but it is a welcome challenge and one from which I have no intention of shying.
I am intellectually aware that I should protect myself from the ravages of the stresses to which I am subjecting myself. I know that their problems are not my problems, that I do not need to meet them at their emotional level. But, gifted with the opportunity to not only empathize with, but to truly assist my fellow humans, I happily assume this burden, knowing that it is indeed a privilege and a blessing. Most days.
T.J. Voboril is a founding partner at Alpenglow Law, LLC, a local law firm, and the Owner/Mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, please contact Mr. Voboril at 970-306-6456, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit Alpenglowlaw.com.