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A few days after the coordinated terrorist attacks on Paris, Sixty Minutes broadcast an interview with Mark Colclough, a Danish psychotherapist who personally witnessed several of the shootings.   As reporter Scott Pelley probed for the grisly details of what Colclough witnessed, it became clear that the the effort to recall the horrific experience almost overcame Colclough, despite his training and experience as a counselor. 

Only those who have personally witnessed this kind of violence, who have heard the shots, smelled the gunpowder, and seen the "puddles of blood. . .puddles!" can come close to fully understanding Colclough's experience.  Thankfully, these are few in number.

"Effective communication requires empathic listening," we're told. Executive trainer and author Steven Covey wrote that empathic listening was actually life-sustaining because it "gives people psychological air."  It's that important.

The problem with empathic listening as it's generally understood--putting yourself in someone else's place--is that, in some situations, it can hurt more than help.  When you use recall or imagination to sense what the other person's feeling, you remain stuck in your own world, your own experiences.  And as the Sixty Minutes interview shows, Pelly has never had an experience as vividly and repulsively horrific as Colclough's, so it was impossible for the reporter to empathize as it's generally understood.

If Pelly were conversing with Colclough rather than interviewing him, he'd have to take his communicating to the next level by practicing Platinum Empathy.  This happens when you treat the other person not just as you would prefer to be treated (the Golden Rule) but as he or she would like to be treated (the Platinum Rule).  This can be next to impossible.

The adult daughter of a friend of mine was brutally murdered by her estranged husband, and I was in my friend's office to offer my condolences and support.  After Jason talked softly and haltingly about some of what he had experienced, I said, "At least you have meaningful work."  "That doesn't help at all," he said abruptly.  I meant to be supportively affirming his pain, and, because I had never experienced anything as terrible as he had, my good intentions had bad effects.  Jason and I are still friends, but not as close as before.  And I learned something important from our conversation.  Genuine empathy taps the other person's experience, not just mine.  It follows the Platinum Rule, not just the Golden Rule.

It's vital to keep trying to see the world from the other person's point of view, and to talk with him or her about what you understand.  It's equally important to remember at every conversational moment that when the topic is the other person's experience, you really don't know what you're talking about.  Their experience is unique, and when you're talking with someone who's lived through what Mark Colclough experienced, your best efforts will fall short of full understanding.

This is why humility is so important.  The most effective communicators invest serious energy in understanding others and, at the same time, remember that their conversation partner is unique.  In fact, when both or all people in a conversation are aware of the others' uniquenesses, the communication between or among them is what U&ME explains is "as personal as possible."

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