On labels, empathy and understanding

Anecdote No. 1

I was leafing back through the pages of my 2012 diary when I realised something. In one month I’d recorded several times that I was having great and frustrating difficulty communicating with a colleague: we weren’t maintaining conversations, I wasn’t getting the support I desperately needed. A month later this colleague admitted that a family member had been diagnosed as being seriously ill. In the weeks after they came public about the illness and that person’s health deteriorated, I could see they were tired, withdrawn, subdued and often not in the mood for a conversation.

My mind didn’t link the two things: it could have been a misunderstanding, it could have been that since I was under stress the issue lay with me. It wasn’t until I looked in my diary and noted the closeness of the dates that I wondered: perhaps their relative was already ill at that stage? Maybe my colleague was waiting for medical test results to come back and was starting to worry? Maybe at that stage the illness hadn’t become apparent and the communication difficulties were as a result of some other factors? But here’s the thing: I just don’t know if family issues were impacting their behaviour with me.


Anecdote No. 2

Another colleague is speaking to me and I tersely rebut his attempts to have a conversation. He remarks “Well, since you’re being moody…” and stops talking to me. Eventually I haul up the courage to talk about the rejection email I received from one of my chosen grad schools a few days ago (the second of five) and how I was beginning to realise that with the ever-increasing wait the chances of me getting an offer of a PhD position was closing to nil. I didn’t bother to mention that over the weekend I’d had a morale-destroying ski slope scare that killed off my attempts at learning to ski…no, I think I’d made my point.

It took about 2 minutes for my colleague to label me “moody”. It was close to 40 minutes later that *I* told him what was wrong. He  labelled me, but never bothered asking if I was OK. I don’t dispute the moodiness – yet as soon as I started discussing the problem it magically dissipated…


Here’s what I want to say, folks.

If somebody acts in a way that is frustrating, unhelpful, anti-social or upsetting…do not immediately throw a label at them. Do not go away and complain about their behaviour. Do not get angry at them. Not before asking: “hey, is everything OK?”

Because you just don’t know what is influencing somebody’s behaviour. Not until they tell you.


6 thoughts on “On labels, empathy and understanding

  1. You’re absolutely right. We often get caught in our own problems to realise we’re not the center of the universe! Even if we don’t go as far as asking someone if they’re all right, we should at least acknowledge the possibility that they’re facing personal problems or just having a bad day…

  2. This is so, so true. Our natural inclination is to focus inwards and process everything through our own grimy lens. Empathy is a skill, and one we all need to work hard to develop. Thanks for the reminder, Claire!

    • It’s gonna take a few months before hear the sort of things I want to be hearing: the application deadlines for these grad schools is quite fixed, with admissions offers made in February/March time. But there’s good news unfolding right now that I’ll update folks on before too long. Thanks for the encouragement.:)

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