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  • Writer's pictureStephen Williams

Sunday Child Custody Devotional – Empathy and Luke 9:23

“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself…” Luke 9:23

Leadership in Child Custody and Co-Parenting is not about power, control and unilateral action heedless of the Other Side’s position. Nor is it about wholesale acceptance of the Other Side’s position or tolerance of their behavior. Empathy, when well understood and executed, seems to strike the right balance. However, empathy has become a poorly understood buzzword we are taking this opportunity to get a better grasp on the concept and how to implement empathy as leader of an organization or family.

Okay, so let’s look…Merriam Webster’s defines empathy, in part, as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner…” (emphases added) whereas sympathy is “an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.” (emphasis added)

Leadership is not just buying wholesale whatever another is feeling or dealing with but taking action to understand it and to demonstrate that understanding without necessarily dealing with the same challenges or having the same feelings yourself.

Any of this sound like it might be helpful in Child Custody and Co-Parenting?

When Luke talks about denying yourself, we take it to mean completely removing the “me” hat during an interaction and doing everything you can to gather a deep understanding of another’s position, their motivations, their fears and how the individual came this issue on this day. Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, writes that when confronted with a challenge, “ask questions but [don’t] use them as a means of touting [your] own ideas…[H]elp the other person think through the problem differently, without offering judgment.”

If this sounds exhausting, it’s because it is. This is Cal Newport calls “Deep Work.” You are an investigator, an analyst. Job #1 is to gather as much information as possible without adversely affecting your ability to make as effective a decision as possible under the circumstances.

The end of an empathetic discussion or quest for understanding, though, is not acquiescence. To kowtow is not to lead…

Empathy, inherently, is separation and, perhaps, unilateral and independent action.

A misunderstanding of “being reasonable” or having “empathy” can even be dangerous. The Other Side of a Child Custody case, for example, if in the practice of undue control or manipulation, can frame any independent action or non-compliance as a lack of “empathy” or, more commonly, “failing to act in the best interests of the child.” Id est, when they do something without your blessing they’re stepping up for the child, but when you do something without their express permission you’re “going behind their back and failing to work together.”

This demonstrates the fundamental distinction between empathy and its cousin, sympathy. As leaders, a necessary element of empathy is our independence. We have our own goals, ideas, experiences. Maybe we share those with our team or the Other Side; maybe there is sympathy on the other end of an empathetic quest for understanding others but not necessarily. The sure thing, though, is that empathy shows respect to others and their ideas which will continue to serve you in your organization and family in innumerable ways.

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