Reflections on Empathy and Listening

Regular readers of BCC will have noticed that posts expressing women’s discomfort or anger produce intense comment threads. Almost invariably, a male commenter comes along and attempts to engage with the ideas that he sees operating in the post, only to find himself accused of not listening. Frequently, these male commenters respond by suggesting that women don’t want discussion, but simply want their feelings affirmed. Many threads have led to this impasse—to a “conversation about the conversation” instead of whatever the original post happened to be about.

As a man, I’ve struggled to know how to respond to these threads. Knowing the women of BCC has been the most morally transformative experience of my recent life, and I feel urgently the need to honor their perspectives, for which I am deeply grateful. And yet I’ve had a hard time knowing what to say beyond “thanks.” That’s important, to be sure, but as a form of engagement it’s rather inert. At other times, I’ve tried to engage by calling out mansplaining, by, you know, mansplaining to mansplainers about how mansplaining works, and these efforts have been neither helpful nor productive. I’ve even been modded!

I’ve come to believe that both of these responses—the bare thanks and the aggressive calling out—resulted from a lack of empathy on my part. I’d listened enough to know what mansplaining was, and I valued listening enough to believe that my BCC sisters’ voices were worth hearing, but I hadn’t yet learned how listening and empathy really work. No doubt I still have quite a bit to learn, but in this post I’d like to share some of what I’ve figured out this past while.

Recently I’ve found myself reading books on pastoral care. (See this recent post, for instance.) One of them, Carrie Doehring’s Taking Care: Monitoring Power Dynamics and Relational Boundaries in Pastoral Care & Counseling, usefully changed how I think about the relationship between empathy and listening. As the subtitle suggests, Doehring believes that both empathy and listening require attention to the power dynamics that inform relationships. Speaking as a man in a Mormon context can carry authority that’s simply inaccessible for women. In my own case, I’m a high priest who’s served in a bishopric. Few if any Mormon women have the opportunity to be as visibly or vocally prominent as I already have been. Male voices predominate in our General Conference meetings: even the women’s meeting is 25% male, and he gets the keynote spot. Whether I rail against these facts or accept them as the proper order of things, they inflect the way that my voice carries in conversations with women, and especially in conversations about women. I’d wager that men have given more General Conference talks about women than women have! (Yes, I’m dropping a hint for Ziff from ZD to do the analysis.)

It’s possible, then, that within Mormonism men have more authority to speak about women’s issues than women do. So, here’s where the need to listen comes in. In this case, listening includes refraining from imposing theological interpretations on women’s speech. It’s not that the theological categories are irrelevant, but that their application needs to come from the speakers themselves. In a later book, Doehring recommends that people in positions of power favor inductive approaches that help others find theological meaning in their own experiences over deductive approaches that make sense of experiences in terms of a given set of doctrinal axioms. Mansplaining tends to operate in this deductive mode, even though there’s nothing inherently less rational about the inductive approach. Women, and especially the women of BCC, know what the doctrinal categories are, but they haven’t been given much cultural opportunity to participate in defining them in their axiomatic forms (such as they are, given Mormonism’s atheological bent). It’s not that the concept of Atonement, say, is therefore irrelevant to women, but rather that the concept of Atonement as usually circulated in Mormonism may not yet be adequate to certain aspects of women’s experience, even though the Atonement itself obviously is. That theological work only happens when women do it, and for that to happen, they need space to do the work.

And here’s where empathy comes in. It’s simply not my place, as a man, to work out a theology of miscarriage (for instance). (I should admit here that I only realize that such a thing is necessary by the grace of BCC’s women.) This isn’t because miscarriage can’t have an impact on me—it can—but rather because I can’t directly experience it. I can never really know the feeling of losing a pregnancy. I can guess at the emotional toll, but the particular physical pang of it remains beyond my ken. But I cannot therefore dismiss such a theology as irrelevant to me. As Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21, NRSV). The theology is relevant for the simple reason that I have women in my life, and they matter to me. My human experience is incomplete and impoverished without theirs. A father’s feelings about the loss of a pregnancy absolutely count, but they can’t substitute for a woman’s. A theology of miscarriage needs both perspectives, which means that both parties need room to do the necessary theological work.

The real question here, though, is how exactly the relevance works. Here’s my best Doehring-inflected attempt at articulating that. Empathy turns out to be a matter of maintaining a proper distance from its object. Too little distance (which Doehring calls merger) risks a loss of personal identity in the experience of the other. If, after doing the work of listening to women reflect theologically about the experience of miscarriage, I presumed to speak as though I knew what that was like, I would be forgetting my own maleness and, in the process, committing a kind of ethical violence by displacing the voices of those to whom the experience belongs. Too much distance, by contrast, risks disengagement, a callousness that in extreme forms manifests as sociopathy. That is, I can’t relegate miscarriage to the category of “women’s issues” and then treat that category as a useful repository for things I can safely disregard as irrelevant to me.

In other words, although men and women experience the loss of pregnancy (to continue with the example) in different and incommensurate ways that thus require relatively distinct theological work, the body of Christ ideal calls us to see past those distinctions without obliterating them. We need to enter into each other’s theological spaces, but as guests. When women post here about matters of concern to them, I believe that men should see that as an act of hospitality. We have been invited into a sacred space, and we should respect its sanctity. The first rule of hospitality is never to refuse anything your host offers you. As many missionaries know, that sometimes requires eating strange foods and finding a way to be polite about it. Here, it means taking in the perspective on offer and sitting with it. You might do the equivalent of saying, “Tell me more about this food. I hadn’t tried anything like that before.” Hosts are typically trying to show guests the best they have to offer, and good guests can facilitate that. Saying, “Well, at my house we do it this way” is usually both unhelpful and offensive, unless the host has asked for such advice.

Empathy, then, means learning how to be a good guest and a good host, and knowing which set of skills to apply in a given moment. The church’s structure means that men are more often cast in the role of host. At this point the paradigm becomes problematic, because women shouldn’t have to be guests in their own church. Or perhaps we need to realize that we’re all guests. Correcting the situation requires that we acknowledge spaces in which women host the theological conversation—and not just about “women’s issues.” God’s house has many mansions, and we should recognize all of our houses as part of that whole. If the Atonement is the heart of our theology, surely we all benefit from learning about the myriad ways in which it can produce what Doehring calls “liberative integration,” the state of our being made free to participate fully in our communities. Anyone who values such freedom should work to make it available to everyone.

Empathy, the process of learning to inhabit the tension between personal identity and other-centeredness, is the key to that freedom. It requires the combination of self-assertion and self-effacement that usually goes by the name of “meekness.” It means a willingness to sit as a guest in uncomfortable places, because there’s no other way to learn how to love the people who live there. It means never forgetting that you’re a guest, even after you’ve gotten more comfortable. It means learning to find ways to create a sense of home for people who may feel that they’re only guests at Church. As Paul put it, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NRSV). That doesn’t mean that those differences disappear “in Christ,” but rather that we’ve learned to share our common messianic home, where we can all be completely ourselves as welcome guests in each other’s lives.


  1. Wonderful! I have been pondering precisely these sorts of issues regarding how to engage with all sorts of friends and acquaintances when they blog or make a facebook post. I appreciate hearing your thoughts, especially along the lines of power dynamics and in light of that Doehring book.

  2. A somewhat inert thanks, Jason. I have some slowly surfacing realization here. But my main conclusion is just to listen more, hoping to come to a more empathetic mental state. It makes for a lot silence.

  3. Great post. A lot of us Mormon guys have a hard time escaping the “you’re there to teach not to be taught” mindset that is fostered in the mission field. As WVS notes, we’ve gotta learn how listen – actively, and humbly – far more than we need to speak. Good intentions =/= empathy. Most of the time I think people mean well, but the degree of “heads exploding” that goes on in the types of exchanges described in the OP is discouraging.

  4. Yes to so much of this.

    Thanks for doing the hard work of caring enough to sort this out. I wish lessons like these would find their way into our church curriculum.

  5. This is wise and thoughtful. I’m trying to think through when (or indeed, whether) one can soulfully and fairly protest the increasing dominance of Foolcault and identity politics while observing the deeply Christian need to love and hear as do our heavenly parents. I think there’s still a lot of work to be done to figure out how to honor well and honestly across the community, acknowledge what is marvelous in recent cultural changes, while not capitulating to the circular logic of this specific strain of secularity which risks the creation/reification/maintenance of a brittle, categorial identity in place of the robust kinship identity that it seeks to displace. JK, does this even come within the realm of intelligibility? I admire you and your thoughts and yet find myself drawn at least a little to protest not the goal but the mechanism, in the above terms. Is there a theology of empathy that could displace the pomo [I’m using this as an admittedly charged term for specifically this Foucault-sounding focus on hegemony, alterity, and subalternity with its resulting categorial identities] ideological commitments?

  6. I was all geared up to disagree, as I started to read. (Apologies, Jason. I should know better.) So much of this category of reflection ends up at the inert “listening and thanks” end, or the anti-PC “mansplaining is the name of the game, baby” (totally offensive) end. But this — “Empathy turns out to be a matter of maintaining a proper distance from its object.” — seems to me the way of truth.
    The women I know, in the conversations I am in, are not telling me to go back to my corner or to “just listen.” My wife and daughters and (female) friends really want me to engage. To listen and reflect. Respectfully, empathetically. Not in fix-it mode. And for all that, intelligently and substantively.

  7. I have learned as a psychotherapist and even more as a parent of adult children that my task is to listen, to understand to the limits of my ability, and to love unconditionally. Not only does this seem to be enough of a response, it seems to be the best and most helpful response I can make. It’s sometimes a relief to remember this. It is sometimes extremely difficult. But I now see it as my duty (and privilege) in all my close relationships.

  8. I really appreciate this post and I’m probably it’s target audience. In the years I’ve read and interacted with women’s issues posts I’ve been reactive and sympathetic at turns, but never really empathetic, and I honestly quit trying. I’ve been told I would never truly understand, would never be able to extricate myself from my privilege, and would never be able to contribute meaningfully unless (and this was my conclusion, not told to me explicitly) I could validate the feelings expressed and agree with the conclusions arrived at. Well, I don’t always agree with the conclusions and that apparently disqualifies me from validating the feelings. Perhaps using the definition of empathy given in this post, I should try again.

    I’ve noticed a weird power dynamic in the comment threads to women’s issues posts. You know how in old movies the woman can become angry and slap the man and everybody understands it’s okay, because he’s clearly more powerful and she isn’t really hurting him? I see that happen in the comment threads all the time. Some dude swings his weighty arguments around and the offended women slap that privilege right off his face. The only thing is, in the movies these days, there’s no power differential. The 120 lb woman can kick the 200 lb dude’s butt, and if she chooses to slap, it’s to demonstrate her power or contempt, not to express her anger or frustration. The new commenter shows up thinking it’s a level playing field here among the progressives, promptly gets slapped, and wonders what the hell. If he’s smart, he just withdraws.

  9. This is so good, Jason. Thank you. I’ve often thought that the reason we know so little of Mother is because to begin to understand Her, we need women to seek Her, but there is no ecumenically approved space for us to ask the questions. I’m sure this has occurred to you too. Your miscarriage example was an elegant expression of the root of so much of my frustration as a woman in our church. I feel, I know, that my experience as a woman and the experience of my sisters gives us the ability to receive answers no one else can. To ask the right questions, too. Until women’s questions and answers are seen as on-par with men’s in the Body of Christ writ large, we are seeing with only one eye.

  10. I’ve been trying to figure out how to cheer on this post without it seeming empty, but Leona’s comment brings up the weird relationship we have with gender. There is no one experience or body part that makes someone female or male, but we use it as the ultimate line between “us” and “them”.

    Empathy is limited by experience. I things for which we have no experience, we try to bridge the gap with out limited knowledge. Wisdom is knowing when your knowledge is not enough to make a bridge and all would be better off not saying anything at all.

  11. Olde Skool says:

    That last sentence, man. Thanks.

  12. Frank,

    Sex may be only a social construct, it may be as Judith Butler would have it, a kind of performance. But it’s one that comes with a set of very concrete lived realities, especially in a culture that’s as invested in the binary as ours is.

    So yes, the fact that I and others define me as “female” means that my experiences and identity are informed by that fact. It doesn’t really matter how squishy the definition of the label is; once it’s affixed to you, it means something (and quite a lot).

    The idea of empathy being limited by experience is a depressing one for me. It may be so, but I hope not. There are many things about my husband’s experience as both a man and a person of color that are far beyond the limits of my own experience. But if I gave up on empathy, where would that leave us?

  13. Thanks! I’m a woman, but I think this post applies to so many situations where we’re faced with differences that we can’t personally experience. Recently I’ve had several non-white co-workers and friends approach me and start venting about how their fears and experiences of racial discrimination. I hate to admit it, but sometimes in the back of my head I think, “Well maybe you’re blowing it out of proportion, maybe race had nothing to do with that guy being rude, and what good does complaining so loudly do?” Sometimes I have nothing constructive or comforting to say to them, since I just can’t relate that well, I’m not certain I agree with their interpretation of events, and I don’t have solutions. But it hasn’t actually seemed to bother anyone when I only listen sincerely and don’t add much to the conversation! And as I’ve listened more and more, I’ve started to find that there actually are lived realities that I’ve been more or less blind to.

    I like the idea that we’re all guests on earth and no one person really has rights to define the reference point for what makes an experience legitimate or important. That’s why we need each other.

  14. Jason, I really appreciate this.

    Like everyone else, I am frustrated with the discussion which ends with “you just want your feelings affirmed,” because I know that is not the case. I want people (including male people) to take me seriously enough to argue with me. At the same time, I recognize that in some discussions, I really lose my cool, and end up wanting to assert my female privilege (heh) or, as Martin puts it, slap somebody down. When I cool off, though, it’s really not that I want to slap someone, because that ends the discussion without any resolution or increased understanding. I think I do want to be recognized as some sort of authority, though–maybe what I want is for someone to argue with me, but respectfully, a bit deferentially, as a student argues with a professor. It’s not that the professor might not be wrong, only that the discussion proceeds from the assumption that the professor is more experienced and more knowledgeable and deserves to be treated a little differently than some kid you’re arguing with in the dorms late at night…

  15. This is very interesting to me. Empathy as an active mode of listening and conceiving the world.

  16. I’m still not sure how to play this out in a comment section. It’s quite applicable in real life because listening and empathy is a more active endeavor. However on the internet listening looks like all my comments on the BCC posts about gender. (hint: there aren’t any because I’ve never felt comfortable engaging, but I’ve read them all).

    I suppose I’m left thinking I’ve missed the ultimate point that everyone else seems to get but I’ll keep a lookout for examples of people doing this successfully on future posts. Preferably form those who disagree with the OP.

  17. Thanks so much for this, Jason. I really like this idea of hosts and guests and their respective roles, and I find that gender is just one example of this, not the only example.

    I have to say, in response to this comment thread, that I don’t like the visual of the woman “slapping the privilege” off someone’s face, nor do I like the consensus that retreating is sometimes the only option for men. I can’t speak for all women, obviously, but when I point out that a man isn’t really hearing me, it isn’t that I am seeking full agreement but rather that I just want to be heard. I want the arguments brought against my argument to show that my opposer has heard where I am coming from, and when commenters respond with lectures about things that I already know, or that are slightly off topic, I feel like I’m not being listened to. I don’t want these commenters to retreat or lurk in the shadows—I want them to engage and I want to engage back. But I want it to be on equal footing. I want the counterarguments to be directed at my logic and reasoning, not at the strawman version of my argument. The frustration isn’t that male commenters are speaking up on female threads—it’s that they don’t always listen beyond the perimeters of their own arguments. So I really like this idea of considering ourselves guests in someone else’s house, willing to politely try a dish we wouldn’t have made ourselves.

    And, of course, I love the idea of there being more rooms and houses made for female voices.

  18. Thanks for all the comments everyone. I’m now going to attempt the embarrassingly insufficient omnibus response that’s the consequence of posting just before a workday when I knew I’d be able to read comments if I was lucky, but not to respond.

    smb: You’ve come the closest to disagreeing fundamentally with the post, so I’ll address you first. I’ll grant that the post emerges from some Foucauldian assumptions about how identity works. That’s simply the thought world I inhabit, by virtue of my profession. I hope that the post is pushing back against the circularity you describe, though. At one point the draft had something in it about the nihilism that comes from pushing intersectionality to its logical end in atomistic individualism: only I can speak from the subject position I inhabit, and everybody else had better stay back or else. Language and sociality dies. (See, the pomo folks haven’t killed all of my first grounding in Kant!) So, even though I maintain that there’s some basic truth to the idea that cultural power differentials inform our relationships, I feel an urgent need to argue against the nihilistic potentialities that come with that idea. I’m interested in thinking about how to nurture and cultivate relationships across power divides. I want kinship that honors difference. Given that I love you, and that I have a higher tolerance for Foucault than you do (even though I tend to find myself arguing against him), I hope that we can find such a kinship!

    Martin: following up on smb’s comment (albeit in a way that he probably won’t like), I think that the precise issue is that the playing field isn’t level. We’d hear from a lot more women in General Conference if it were. The unevenness affects all of us: Doehring argues that attempts at domination are a common response to being disempowered and threatened. Goodness knows I’ve done that plenty of times. So, yeah, the slapping down happens, and sometimes the guys who get slapped had no idea they were being threatening. (I’ll speak here only for the times when I’ve been the slapper.) Maybe as a guy myself I need to think about gentler ways of handing these guys a map showing the landscape around here, as a gesture of solidarity or something. I mean, I’ve noticed that sometimes my own overreactions have come from a place of fearing that I’m secretly the ugly mansplainer. Which I probably am, in my way, but which I need to stop fearing about myself.

    To the discussion between Leona and Frank about limits: I think that empathy requires knowing our limitations. I need to see the boundary that tells me that articulating my own theology of miscarriage would be a bad idea. Our own experience does make it easier to empathize with some people than with others, I think, depending on how much common ground we share.

    To Em and stilesbn: yes, sometimes listening in silence is ok. I think that silence is very underrated in our society, but that’s another post.

    Kristine: The heart of it all is authority, just as you say, and I think that your professor/student model is very helpful. It’s basic courtesy to assume that a host knows her own home better than I do as the guest there. And, since I’m talking about “lived theology” here, who’s a better authority on how the theology fits your experiences than you are? People fear the dragons of relativism that seem to lie down this path, but I don’t think that pure abstractions do anybody any good (except for the people who enjoy discussing them late at night with their dorm-mates). Our theology’s only as good as the practical difference in makes in people’s lives–and that includes reckoning with the practical pain that it can inflict on some.

  19. Grover: well said. I do think that maybe an initial period of silent retreat is necessary. We need to sit in the space long enough to see that its contours are not “the perimeters of our own arguments.” The next part–where we speak up as men in the female space–is the hard one, though, and that’s what I’m trying to do better. I think that our kinship is at stake.

  20. I guess my fear is that if I start saying that men need to be careful speaking up in a female space that this then infers that I as a woman I need to be careful speaking up in a male space. But this upsets me, because according to many perspectives “male spaces” could include my religion, my university’s administration, any workplace outside of the home or the domestic sphere, etc., etc. But I don’t want to view these as male spaces. I just want them to be seen as people spaces. I want to inhabit a people space, not a female space. Unless we are talking specifically about biological things, I guess, which maybe we are. I know I am oversimplifying things a bit, and I do see your excellent point, but I also still have this anxiety about gendered spaces that I’m struggling to explain exactly.

    *retreats into silence to think some more before I keep talking* :-)

  21. Yeah, Grover, that’s a great point. I was trying to get at that with the point that women shouldn’t have to be guests in their own church. The hard work involves transforming male spaces into people spaces. I think that burden falls mostly on men giving up the unquestioned assumption that our voices are authoritative in that space, part of which means being willing to listen to women like professors sometimes, on all topics. It’s complicated, and I’m only feeling my way forward in the dark here, but I’m glad to have a friend like you on the journey.

  22. Ditto, Jason.

  23. Genderless says:

    I sometimes choose genderless names when communicating in Mormon forums, and I am always amused that most people assume I am male in those cases. It reinforcespecially my lived experience in the embodied church experiences of my life. When I starting advocating for the rights of transgender students at my university, I often would talk about privilege with those I was advocating for, requesting that they let me know if my privilege as a cis-gendered person snuck through in a way I didn’t notice. It of course happens all the time. The permission to call me on it is something that I shouldn’t have to articulate, but I know how much privilege that gives me, and I want to willingly give it away in a way that has value for those I have chosen to serve.

    I know that it only partially relates to the topic, but it is what I have been thinking about since reading this post. The look of pleasure and validation that comes when a trans-woman calls me on my cis-privilege, and I ask then to help me come up with a better way to say or do something is priceless to me.

  24. Really great points, Genderless. Some BCC writers have also experimented with switching between male and female names, and they’ve observed that speaking as a man absolutely makes a difference in how commenters respond. Your experiment suggests that masculinity is still our “default human,” which gets to the challenge posed by Grover’s desire for “human spaces.” And I think that your giving trans folks permission to call you out is one way of implementing the professor/student relationship that Kristine was talking about.

  25. “I think that burden falls mostly on men giving up the unquestioned assumption that our voices are authoritative in that space,” – the idea that men’s voices in this church are authoritative isn’t an assumption, it’s fact. You said it yourself that you’re a high priest who served in a bishopric. It doesn’t matter what the topic (even women’s issues), your viewpoint will hold more influence and do more to change anything in this church than mine ever could. It’s smart and nice of you that you would listen to women’s voices to better understand our experiences, but nothing will be done in this church if men continue to consider “women’s experiences” as something in an “other” category that doesn’t affect them in their own life. We need men’s voices in these conversations, because nothing will ever happen without men being involved in these conversations. Nothing will ever happen if men continue to believe that women’s experiences don’t have impact on their own experiences in this church. Assumptions about female gender roles mean assumptions about what male gender roles are NOT. Like Grover, I don’t like the idea of having gendered spaces where half the population is expected to shut up.

    A pedestal theory of women means men are inferior, two-dimensional caricatures like sit-com dads. Incapable of taking responsibility for childcare or other domestic duties. Only valuable as muscular protecters, controlled entirely by hormones, little more than large, bumbling children. The temptress theory of women puts men as the saviors of their families, responsible for the spiritual well-being of every family member. Men aren’t leading families in scripture study, FHE, or family councils? Failure. Men can’t adequately provide for his family? Failure. Kid doesn’t follow gospel plan? Dad is to blame.

    It’s good to listen to women, but the vast majority of gender issues in this church affect both genders, not just women. A theology of miscarriage, for example, must include a theology of abortion and stillborn children. Because *both* parents are sealed to these children, *both* parents will need to consider the theological implications of possible children (possible bodies devoid of spirits, we don’t know) who die in utero. This is NOT just a woman’s issue doctrinally, even though reproductive rights are considered women’s legal issues in larger society.

  26. I think that I agree with you pretty much across the board, Mary Ann.

  27. This is great, Jason. I really like how carefully you’ve thought through this issue. I particularly love the point about an ideal being women not having to be guests in their own church. And I love Kristine’s framing of the professor/student relationship, and the idea of assuming women know what they’re talking about. Certainly many of the most egregious examples of mansplaining I’ve seen would be violating this rule: man X barges in to ask the ladies why they haven’t considered scripture Y, which leads to obvious conclusion Z, so why are they worrying their pretty little heads? When of course they *have* considered it, and just haven’t reached the same conclusion.

  28. Well said, Ziff!

  29. Oh Jason, if we had just 10 men, okay maybe even 5 men, like you, in every ward, I believe the change that I desperately crave, would happen sooner. Please keep talking about this…especially within your ward ‘in person’. It’s a grassroots effort for sure.

    Just last week I had something I wanted to talk about with the bishop, involving, you guessed it, gender. I asked my husband if he would have the talk with the bishop because I know it will carry more weight if the advice comes from a man, not a woman. In the end I retracted my request because it made me sick to think I have to play within the current system to have my voice heard. I really don’t know how this will change. Your post gives me hope it will. Eventually. Someday.

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