Empathy Café: 'I was planning my ending, but it got cancelled', she said.

“I was planning my ending, but it got cancelled”, Alice mentioned casually. I wasn’t sure if I heard that right, and we all continued introducing ourselves, when Bob asked: *“Wait a minute, what did you mean when you said ‘ending’?”

“Well, my exit, so to say”, Alice answered.

For a moment, the silence was palpable, while thoughts were racing through my head. How do I respond?

First, I had to double-check the ground rules. I was hosting an empathy café, which is a practice ground for empathic listening. It is not a therapy session, and therefore, participants are expected to take care for themselves. This means: regulating your own emotions, setting boundaries, and asking for what you need. Alice confirmed she could take care of herself, and I did not sense any emotional distress that would indicate otherwise. She was glad she could participate, as she was kicked out of some other group earlier.

Meanwhile, Bob responded with “you shouldn’t plan to kill yourself!”. Which, to be honest, was my first thought as well. Alice replied: “I think people should have a right to decide for themselves when they consider their life finished”.

At this point, I had re-grounded myself in the intention of the empathy café:

Giving and receiving the gift of compassion to make life more wonderful, and to cultivate more capacity or connection and compassion in the world.

I interrupted the conversation to share the intention of the empathy café: “Look”, I said, “we just met Alice. When somebody says she is planning to die, it is easy to jump to conclusions and think we know what is best for her. But who are we to judge what is right and what is wrong, when we only know Alice for just a few moments? Instead, I propose we practice empathic listening. We postpone our judgement in order to listen to the feelings and needs that are underneath. I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t judge - what I am saying is that we should focus on connection and understanding first. So let’s practice.”

And so we continued our evening with practice rounds of empathic listening. Alice, Bob and the other participants all had an opportunity to speak, while I or another participant practiced empathic listening.

When Alice spoke, I learned that Alice wanted a clean exit because she didn’t want to leave a mess and burden others with that. The coach in me wanted to challenge her belief that she is a burden to others - but this was not coaching, this was empathic listening, so I continued to listen to what she was feeling and needing. I learned that she felt overwhelmed that things didn’t go according to her plan, and that she really longed for the security, clarity and focus that planning her death gave her. And I learned that autonomy - the ability to choose what to do - was really important to her.

What struck me was her intellect: she really thought about this and made a case for her right to die . She told us she often had to explain her position, so she always was searching the right amount of information to give for others to understand where she is coming from. While the intellectual sharing helped to create an intellectual grasp on this unconventional subject, it also prevented me from having more emotional connection.

When debriefing the empathic listening, I learned that I could interrupt more, to prevent Alice from overintellectualizing or going off on a tangent. Although I am a skilled empathic listener, I am practicing and learning as well! In a later practice round, I tried to put this into practice, and it helped me catch more glimpses of her emotional life underneath the intellectual things she was sharing.

As the evening came to a close, I asked the participants what they learned. Bob shared: “I learned that listening is so powerful, and that saying in there no matter what is said helps you get the understanding that is needed.”.

Then, I asked, what touched them the most. Alice shared “I feel like we have done so much in so little time. I’m happy I wasn’t kicked out”.

I felt touched when I heard that. Internally, I couldn’t help but see how advocating the right to die is a sure way to get alienated from others. She did indeed mentioned getting kicked out of some other group. I could imagine why this would happen: These views are so far-off that they can’t help but trigger all kinds of reactions from people, ranging from disagreement and shock to attempts to help and save. At least I know these reactions were triggered in me.

And while efforts to tell her that she shouldn’t plan her death come from the best of intentions, they really clash with her need for autonomy: to decide for herself. But can you imagine where does this leave her? Kicked out, alienated, misunderstood, and all efforts to save her life undermine what she holds most dear: her autonomy.

Indeed, I concluded, the very least and the very best we can do is to create a space in which she can express herself, and others will listen with empathy, so she can have a place to be, a place to be understood, a place for connection.

Bob summed it up perfectly: “Hearing you, I really want you to succeed in your plans, and I really don’t want you to succeed at the same time, because it would mean we can’t enjoy the gifts you bring anymore”.

While this article is based on true events, I have changed names and some details in order to protect confidentiality. Quotes are paraphrased from memory. Shared with permission from participants.