‘Sharing plates, sharing minds’

Growing up at the Greek table, sharing was an unquestioned part of how food was served. The only claim I could ever make to being on trend is that our family was doing ‘family style’ meals long before it obtained its style status. It was simply just what we did every evening at dinner. When an array of sharing dishes adorns a table, each circular plate of food serves as a big dot to join those individuals around it – it’s a way of eating that facilitates connection. After all, there is no ‘I’ in share.

Sharing a person’s mind, in a psychological sense, refers to the skill of empathy. Empathy is about connection and understanding, and the human need to be understood runs deep. Our minds are organised in a manner that is deeply interconnected with the experiences of others, and reflecting on what another human being is thinking or feeling is a big part of this. It’s about seeing the world through the other person’s eyes. I have long thought however, that seeing the world through a person’s plate is a far better way to ‘see’ them. Anthony Bourdain once advised us to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food.’ And there are times when I’ve done exactly that – as a therapist. If I know what it feels like to bake a Jewish honey cake, and to appreciate the sweetness that it brings into my client’s life when she celebrates new year, then maybe I might get a better sense of her, as a person. And so, for the first time, I baked this moist, dark-amber coloured sugary sponge. And whilst I was pottering about in the kitchen, I wondered – I wondered about whether she gifted the cake to others or kept it for herself. I wondered if she was precise and perfectionistic with her methods. I wondered if she got into a tangled battle with (and cursed) the gluey golden syrup, like I had. I wasn’t just baking a cake; I was spending time with her in my mind.

At its heart, empathy is about getting inside something – thinking about what it needs and wants. So often when I’m standing at the stove, I’ll taste whatever I’m cooking and then I’ll stop. In that pause, I’ll look at what I’m cooking and think about what it needs – more salt? A spritz of lemon? Being in the kitchen helps me to sense, to get a feel for something. It’s a process where I think, I identify and I try to respond appropriately, and there is a similarity between the kitchen and the consulting room. In therapy, if I show the other person that I recognise their experience of feeling hurt, angry or in despair, then I am communicating a message of ‘I see you. You exist. I understand your way of seeing the world’ – and that is a powerful message for another human being. It helps the other person to stay with those feelings, and we can then start to explore and make sense of it all, together.

Research has shown that the ‘family style’ ritual of sharing food matters – it promotes empathy, even among strangers. Coordinating your own eating around other people helps you to recognise and understand the needs of others, because you’re more likely to hold others in mind to ensure that everyone gets a fair share of the pie. And sharing food in this way has domino effects – it’s helpful for skills that transcend the table. One study found that it even increased the efficiency of how two people negotiated.

We know that food can bring people together. But it’s more than the familiarity of the table or the similarity of the food. Ritual matters, but the form of ritual matters even more – other research has found that if a ritual highlights a sense of separateness, such as separate eating, it might in fact decrease cooperation between individuals. As always in life, it’s not just what you do but how you do it. This goes for therapy too, or any conversation. Empathic words matter, and the words we use have a taste, they have a feel. And the other person can feel them.

The best recipe for empathy is simple, and can be summed up in one word: pause. Whether it’s before you plunge your pitta in to scoop up the last dollop of houmous, or before you speak the words that are at the front of the queue in your mouth or mind, just pause. Empathy is a feeling that locates us in time and space. Take a moment to think about what might be going on for the other person right there and then – share their mind.

I think I’ll pause there for today.

My recipe for smoky aubergine and garlic dip was inspired by this life lesson.

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