On Sunday, our Brooklyn small group leaders gathered to discuss how God exists in the spaces between us. We sat in silence, reflecting on the ways God is moving in the blank space between words, the space between bodies, even the space between our organs - it's all filled with God's presence. We reflected on meaningful ways God has worked in our spaces, our lives, and in our small groups over this past year.
We described the space that surrounded us at these times using words like "vulnerable, sensitive, focused, guided, open, present." The word that came up several times was "supportive."
What does it mean to create a supportive, empathetic space?
First, it's important to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. I highly recommend watching this two-minute video from psychologist Brene Brown and animator Katy Davis to learn the difference. You can also learn more from this great blog post.
When someone is sharing a struggle with us, we often assume we're being empathetic when we respond with a story about a similar experience we've had personally. But that is taking the focus off them and putting it on us. Empathy keeps the subject of the conversation on the other person. Empathy requires us to not simply be nice or polite in our listening, but to dig within ourselves into a place where we can relate to their emotions. Then simply say things like: "That must be so hard for you. Thank you for sharing it with me."
By empathizing with someone we are not agreeing to take on their issues (that would be sympathy), and we are not obligated to fix it. We are simply willing to listen and try to understand what a person is facing at the moment. Often times the best response is the simplest one..."How can I support you right now?" Support might look like a hug, a coffee during the week, a contact with another person who can help, or words of prayer. Remember, you cannot force someone to change, you can only walk with them until they're ready to ask for the support they need.
Small groups are some of the most important places for us to practice empathy. Through an empathetic, supportive small group we can create a space where people feel safe to live into their values and beliefs. Small groups are where we begin to listen and understand what it means to embrace diversity, to develop a humble and generous spirit in a safe and loving community.
Our small groups are kicking off again this September. Join us as we each learn to follow Jesus through supportive, empathetic community. You can learn more about finding a group near you by visiting our Brooklyn or Manhattan small groups pages.