Empathy and the Shy Little Lady

Article Contributed by Guest Author Patrick B. McLaughlin M.A., M.Ed.

Although this is a story about Halloween, we didn’t want to wait until next Halloween to share it.  It was written by Patrick McLaughlin, an amazingly empathetic S+EI coach from Quebec, Canada.   Enjoy!

Whether one is a parent, a friend, a manager, a police officer or whatever, a well-developed facility in ‘Interpersonal Effectiveness’ goes a long way in creating the possibility of Trust and in Improving Relationships.  The individual who demonstrates such Impersonal Effectiveness is not inhibited by the reality that there can be an element of risk in not being aware of the other’s potential reaction.  However, there is a powerful safety valve contained in sensitivity and in the ability to ‘read’ what is not being verbalized.

Far removed from the corporate world, here is a Halloween event which, at least in my opinion, reflects the qualities of Empathy and Interpersonal Effectiveness.

The local organic food store displays a multitude of enticing items but, since space is limited, circulation can be challenging at times.  I had just picked up my ‘Millet and Soya Bread’ and was making my way in the direction of whatever other required item was on my mental list. My progress was somewhat interrupted  by the presence of a mother and her daughter also experiencing some degree of difficulty in circumventing the various barriers.  The little girl was rigged out in a party dress and I noticed that something resembling a floral design and sparklers illuminated her face.  Not being particularly inhibited by nature, I said to her, ‘I like your face’.  Very shyly she looked at me and then turned to her mother for consolation.  Now my conversation continued with the mother and I asked if the little girl was shy which the mother confirmed, then addressed her daughter in French.  Presuming that the language barrier may have been the primary reason for her discomfort, I also spoke to her ‘en français’ but the hesitency remained.  The mother informed me that her little girl was preparing to go ‘trick-or-treat’ing, its being Halloween.  ‘Alors tu vas chanter ce soir?’ (So you are going to sing this evening?).  She murmured  something which I understood to be ‘Yes’.  When I asked her what she was going to sing, (Qu’est-ce que tu vas chanter?), silence returned.

The shopping continued and I would presume that the little girl was glad to find herself once more in the reassuring safety of her mother’s caring, delighted that the inquisitive stranger had finally left her in peace.

It was not to be.  Our paths crossed again at the checkout counter.  The little girl looked at me with some suggestion of comfort.  So I started again, all en français.  ‘I also will be going trick-or-treating this evening and I will be singing many songs in order to get lots of goodies’, (a figment of my imagination, of course)  and I sang her a bit of a song…’Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques, Dormez-vous, Dormez-vous? etc’.  Then I pushed gently ahead, asking her what song she was going to sing.  Wonder of wonders..she sang her song, clinging to her mother.  ‘You have a lovely voice’, I said, ‘and you will surely gather lots of candies and cakes this evening’.  ‘Will you share them with your Mummy?’ ‘No.’  ‘Why not’, I asked.  Without a moment’s hesitation, she came up with a rather sound justification for keeping all the goodies for herself.  ‘My Mummy does not like cakes’.

Not only was this a wonderfully warm encounter, but I noticed that the mother, the gentleman behind the counter and two other ladies who were there to shop and not to hear the two of us rehearsing our singing programme for Halloween had delighted smiles on their faces. The power of empathy had not only successfully inspired this young lady to sing in public but had reached out and touched three strangers and evidently warmed the heart of the mother who must have been delighted to witness her shy little daughter abandoning her reserve in such a delightful manner.  The power of empathy created a positive change, even for a moment, in the spirit of all these individuals who beforehand were complete strangers.  And, judging by her attitude in the final scene, her Halloween was not ruined.

This impromptu encounter most certainly illustrated the extent to which the expression of empathy can create positive change in a group setting.  The little lady who was the focus of my attention was not the only one to manifest that something had touched her in that moment; the evidently delighted response of the others, even though they were merely onlookers, was a testimony to the power of empathy.

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