Emotional Relationships Need Empathy
I’m going to go into a deeper description about empathy in a subsequent post but for now I’m going to identify that the keys to expressing empathy are (1) to demonstrate acceptance of the other person’s experience and (2) to demonstrate an emotional response that indicates a caring connection with the person’s experience.
Accept the person’s emotions
To demonstrate acceptance of another person’s experience, you first have to acknowledge the emotional state. Examples of acceptance, with increasingly direct emotional content could include:
- “I see a reaction on your face but I’m not sure what it means. Would you be willing to tell me?”
- “I hear you saying [or, “I can see. . . ”] that you are feeling sad”, or
- “I heard you say you are sad, but from what you told me you might also be feeling rejected. Is that right?”.
In the first example, you acknowledge that you don’t know what the emotional reaction you are seeing on the other person’s face but you inquire further. The inquiry demonstrates a de facto acceptance that the emotion exists. In the second example, you repeat the feeling words shared by your partner or make a relatively simple observation to acknowledge sadness. The repetition demonstrates acceptance of the emotional experience. In the third example, you go beyond just the acknowledgement of the surface emotional content to identify and acknowledge nuance in the emotional experience. The nuance might even go beyond what the person has said. But the most important part of the third example is at the end. The question, “Is that right?” demonstrates that even if your attempt at understanding is incorrect, your goals is to learn. These sentences are all working towards acceptance.
However, keep in mind that acceptance and understanding are different. In acceptance, you only need to demonstrate that you believe that the emotion exists. For understanding you need to be able to trace the internal process from the events to the person’s emotional experience. But in my experience understanding, while helpful, isn’t necessary. You only need to believe that the other person has the emotional experience they are describing.
Demonstrate a connecting emotional response
The next step in empathy is to demonstrate that learning about the other person’s feelings, generates a connecting emotional response. Sometimes when I’m working with people in couples therapy, the member of the couple trying to develop empathy will have a hard time shifting from the acceptance step to the emotional connection step. They might say something like, “I’m sorry you feel sad” while shaking their head, raising their eyebrows, curling their upper lip, and turning their face away from their partner. This kind of response describes an emotional reaction of contempt, but that’s not the kind of emotional response that creates a connection.
Here are some examples of connecting emotions when your partner tells you about a situation at work that made them angry. One reaction might be to share in the anger, “I can’t believe s/he did that to you. That’s very unprofessional behavior, and you have always had such a consistent work ethic.” Another connecting reaction might be sadness, “After all that you have done for your team to have that team member treat you that way makes me sad. You’ve poured your heart out there.” A final example could be sharing confidence with your partner, “Even though that person treated you badly that doesn’t have an impact on your skills. You are amazing at your job and I have confidence that you can get through this.”
Which one is correct? I don’t know. Depending on the needs of the listener, each one of the responses that I used might work. Which kind of response your partner needs is about their emotional make-up and you will need to create an internal working model about which emotional responses work best for your partner in different situations.
Shared Vulnerability + Time = Emotional connection
A final advanced concept that I want to share about emotions is that emotional connections between people are built through shared vulnerability and time. The easiest way that I know of as a therapist to cultivate shared vulnerability in a couple is to encourage one person to reveal the vulnerable emotions underneath their communication. For example, I might help a client who is raising their voice towards their partner to shift to identifying the fears, hopes, and sadness behind the anger. However, another possibility would be for the partner who is being yelled at to be able to listen past the anger so skillfully that s/he could empathize with it, “It sounds like you might be scared, sad, and hopeless. Is that right?” in either case, though, on the other side of this vulnerability an emotional connection gets forged when the partners are able to spend time with each other in the vulnerable emotions.
I want to be clear though that emotional vulnerability doesn’t only come from spending time experiencing negative emotions. Positive emotions are bonding too. For example, one recipe for helping people bond emotionally is to help them face a challenge together (e.g., ubiquitous “team building” exercises at the company retreat). Sometimes, the vulnerability emerges in the context of the environmental challenge and the emotions that are experienced are happy or joyful. In fact, when I listen to many couples talk about how they fell in love, they often share stories of engaging in new environments or activities together.
The second ingredient to create an emotional connection I’m referring to as “time”. What I mean though is not just time allowing the vulnerability to continue or time being a couple. I’m referring to the repeated experience of this shared vulnerability. Once I help a couple experience shared vulnerability in session, I will encourage them to begin trying to create opportunities for it between sessions. For example, imagine that you’ve had a hard day at work and you come home. You remember that you’ve been encouraged by me as your therapist to try being vulnerable, yet launching directly into what happened at work feels too exposed. So, instead, you say to your partner, “I’ve been thinking about what Dr. Eric said about shared vulnerability, but it is hard sometimes to just launch into saying the vulnerable things. You know what I mean?” And without exposing too much detail, you’ve already shared your vulnerability about being vulnerable. Now the ball is in your partner’s court. Will they join you there? I hope so.
The last two posts have identified that emotions are created by our perceptions and the stories we tell ourselves. The emotions summarize our physical reactions to interpersonal events and signal to us whether our relationship needs are being met or whether we can anticipate that they will be met in the future. Since our emotional experience helps determine our behavior (and colors our next perceptions) it doesn’t matter if our emotions have logical causes. One way or another people relating to us must relate to the emotions we have. The best way to relate to emotions in others is with empathy which includes both acceptance and connection. Over time, the mutual and repeated experience of shared emotional vulnerability and empathetic connection leads people to feeling connected with one another. In my next post I will share an empathy development tool that I use to help people and reflect a little bit on how I put that tool the use.