Kenneth Feinburg is a lawyer who is frequently called upon by various government individuals to come up with compensation packages for victims of natural disasters, governmental mistakes, and large-scale tragedies.  He was chosen by congress to oversee the 9/11 Compensation Fund, which doled out monetary benefits to families of victims and survivors of the terrorist attacks.

This man is a lawyer, and listening to him talk, you can tell.  His mind is a steel trap, his logic is sound, and he loves to solve puzzles and come up with theories to explain or predict worldly phenomena. He is, however, not so great with people.

He’s the first to point out this weakness. He once said to a man who had lost his son in the towers on 9/11: “This is terrible. I know how you feel.” And Feinberg can still recall the man’s response: ”Mr. Feinberg, people like you should never tell people like me that you know how I feel. You have no idea how I feel. You have a tough job, but those words ring hollow. They’re pretentious, they’re robotic.” Feinburg recalled the conversation during an interview about his experience with the 9/11 Compensation Fund, where he talked about all the unforgettable times in which he learned just how not-so-great-with-people he actually was.

One of the cardinal rules of empathy is not to think of yourself as an expert in human experience. When someone is in pain, be it physical or otherwise, you need to seek understanding, but you should never assume you understand. I’ve been social working for long enough to be duped into thinking this was common knowledge. Evidently, there is a corner of humanity that doesn’t know this yet, and unsurprisingly that corner is populated in part by lawyers.

But empathy is more than merely not saying the wrong thing. I went to graduate school with hundreds of people who knew all sorts of things to not say, but I’m still pretty confident some of them shouldn’t be allowed to be therapists. In the year that I’ve been out of that master’s program, I’ve been trying to decode the difference between people who practice empathy and people who are actually skilled at it.

What I’ve keyed into is the difference between learning as a victim and learning as a perpetrator. When you hear someone’s poorly-planned response to your pain, you feel that sting and immediately know exactly what about that response was “wrong.” You’ve learned through victimization, and if you’re at all compassionate, you’ll work hard not to put other people through that. But that isn’t just an innate understanding that will come to you at the required moment. If you’re not accustomed to that kind of emotional labor, it can feel like treading water when you can’t see the shore. So when someone throws you a life raft and gives you any kind of direction, you learn through desperation, and often, humiliation.

Feinburg was like that when he worked on the 9/11 Compensation Fund. He was the guy with the numbers and the paperwork, but part of his job required that he talk to vulnerable people living in unfathomable pain. Suffice it to say he had no idea what he was doing, and he may not have realized just how much he didn’t know. For the right person, who is open and humble, that floundering feeling can be a learning opportunity, but only if the person in a position to teach you makes the necessary sacrifice. That man who had lost his son didn’t have to tell Feinberg to shove it. He could have absorbed the blow and moved on, and no one could have judged him: when you’re grieving, taking the time to educate someone shouldn’t be your responsibility.

Nevertheless, he did tell him off. And Feinburg learned from it, never again flippantly telling someone he understood something he couldn’t.

These were two men of relatively equal status, which is not always true in these situations. I have had supervisors, professors, and other people in power over me say insensitive things and I haven’t felt comfortable enough to turn it into a teachable moment. But when that rare and risky opportunity arises, we have the opportunity to take it. And if the person on the other side has enough humility and openness, something important may come from it. It may not be comfortable or fun for anyone involved, but it may still be immeasurably valuable.

It is its own kind of pain to be shown exactly how you have failed at anything. But unlike a sport or hobby or niche skill, empathizing with vulnerable people around us is something we will all have to do, and sometimes we will have little to no forewarning. We may very well feel as though we are out of our depth, but we can’t always duck out of the situation. Those moments can only be salvaged if all the participants are willing to be uncomfortable, just for a moment, just long enough to learn something.

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