Interview; Kate Kenfield McCombs

Founder and creator of Tea and Empathy

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so, kate, tell us a bit about yourself...

I'm a sex and relationship educator, I've been doing that for over ten years, I'm based in Melbourne, Australia, but I travel a lot internationally for work. I'm calling you from Los Angeles, [laughs] I'm right by the airport, I'm flying to Canada tomorrow [laughs]. I've just spent the last week teaching hundreds of university students about enthusiastic consent, and safer sex.

we have never heard of the term 'empathy educator' - what does this mean?

What that means is that I spend the majority of my professional time teaching people how to improve their empathy skills. Often that's in a sex ed context where I'm teaching people how, essentially, empathy is the ultimate sex tip. People are so incredibly individual in what they want and what they need and the only way you can really learn what it is someone else wants is by practising good communication and empathy is really the foundation of that. I also teach about empathy skill building in [a] context outside the sex ed world, in [a] corporate and organisational context. So empathy is really the theme of my work, as a whole, it ties it all together.

amoungst teaching, speaking and working, you have another project called 'tea and empathy'. what is it about?

Tea and Empathy is training that's all about giving people practical hands-on tools for increasing their empathy skills. In that workshop, people get to experience what it's like to receive empathy as well as to practice giving empathy to other persons. So everyone in the workshop gets a chance to actually share something that's going on for them that's a little bit emotional. Something that might a little stressful or overwhelming in some way, and then using a deck of cards that I developed the other person [unintelligible] make empathy guesses about what that person may or may not be feeling. It's a really cool experience, people feel really seen and heard at the end of it. And the people who are doing the empathy guessing get a tool for doing that empathic inquiry without feeling like they need to fix or solve anyone's problems.

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"...take time to sit with your feelings and learn to give language to them."

- Kate Kenfield McCombs

this month we are talking about all things 'self'. why is it important to take the time to better ones self and our relationships with others?

Gosh, I have a whole book about this, um, so one of the things that I say a lot in my empathy work that sustainable empathy requires sustainable self-care. And I think happy relationships are really predicated empathy but it's very difficult to be empathetic if you are not also practising self-care. But self-care is a skill set, y'know I think the way the media often presents self-care is that it's all about manicures and pedicures, and bath bombs and while that's valid, they're valid forms of self-care, those are not sustainable forms of self-care in totality. Self-care is also about boundaries, self-care is about things like saying no, and boring things like making sure you're going to the doctor. one of my forms of self-care is being clear with people when I don't want unsolicited advice. So knowing how to get continually better at taking care of ourselves, I think is a really core part of, not only making sure that we are well-resourced in the world, but making sure that we can be resourced for others, for our partners and our loved ones. And I think that's how we create the foundation to healthy interpersonal eco-systems.

Through your experience of presenting in workshops, what have you found to be the most common thing that gets asked?

I think most people who work at sex and relationships will tell you this that it's some variation on 'Am I normal?'. I think humans in our culture aren't having a lot of meaningful conversations about sex and relationships and feelings and as a result, they are quite isolated in their experience. And when they're given an opportunity to learn about this stuff in a workshop context they're curious 'Is my experience normal?' And the overwhelming majority of the time, it's normal. It might be a problem for them and it might be something that needs a solution or needs empathy. but it's normal.

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you seem like a busy bee! how do you make time for yourself amoungst teaching, travelling and working?

I think it's expectation-setting [laughs]. Letting people know when I am really busy and letting them know what my capacities are like. I'm pretty good at asking for help when I need it. I so would not be able to do what I do without the incredible people helping me do it. I also do a pretty good job of turning on and turning off. Like, this week was bananas, where I taught a ton of workshops in a short period of time. And then this next week is going to be not-so-busy. I'll be doing a little bit of work on computer, and a lot of it will just be hanging out in Vancouver with cool sex-educators I know there.

what is one of the best self preservation tips you can leave us with?

I think my best self-preservation tip is to take time to sit with your feelings and learn to give language to them. It can be amazingly transformative when we can give language to our feelings. When we give language to our feelings it can take them from being this amorphous thing that can overwhelm us, to something that we can feel a sense of control over, even without any sort of change in the actual circumstance, we can articulate what is going on for us, that can have a lot of power in our lives. And being able to just sit with uncomfortable feelings without resisting them can be really, really powerful.