One of the most common things that I teach members of my couples is how to be empathic towards each other. Once I help a couple establish an empathic connection, most of the other challenges are relatively easy to solve because empathy makes solutions much easier to find and put into practice.
As a therapist in Silicon Valley I work with a lot of high drive, success oriented people, who have spent a lot of their lives developing a capacity for technical expertise. I end up helping many of my clients develop the softer skill of establishing an emotional connection through empathy. This post provides some reflections about my Empathy 101 Handout that I provide to clients to help in the learning process. The post will make the most sense if you print out the handout and follow along there while you read the post. The handout also provides more examples about how to apply each skill.
There’s a secret step to empathy that isn’t on my handout and you, blog reader, get the inside scoop. The first step in empathy is having someone with whom to empathize. Since I usually work with couples, this would seem like an easy step. But the person to receive empathy needs to be ready to receive empathy. If someone comes into my office and shares the names of their vulnerable emotions without expressing that emotion on their face, in their posture, or with their tone of voice, I became concerned that the person is not ready to receive empathy. Whatever the cause for the lack of readiness, when I see it I will pause the process and try to work with the person expressing emotions to try to make sure they aren’t just telling their emotions, but expressing them.
Once we have someone ready to receive empathy, the first step in empathy is developing Comprehension. That is, making sure that you and your partner know with which emotions you are empathizing. The Inquiry and Repeating Emotions sub-skills can help with this step. But from there the person who is being empathized with will usually do one of three things, share more emotions, share an explanation about why the emotion exists, or repeat themselves. I’ve learned that a person who shares more emotions or who explains the emotions, usually does so because they feel empathized with. The additional emotions are a way of getting more empathy with more facets of the experience. The explanation is a way of helping the empathizing partner deepen the empathy by giving more information about the causes of the emotional experience. However, if the partner repeats themselves, this usually means that the person didn’t experience a feeling of empathy. Like other experiences of missed communication, when someone receiving empathy doesn’t really feel heard they tend to repeat themselves.
Acknowledging reasons is another step in the process of empathy. It isn’t enough to understand that your partner is sad. If you don’t know why they are sad, and especially if you did something that triggered the sadness but don’t understand what that is and why it is a trigger, then the empathy falls flat. This is because the reasons are a part of our internal emotional life. We only really feel understood when we know that people both understand the emotions inside of us, and the way that feeling developed.
Because this comprehension tool is a way of learning about the internal emotional experience of another person, it is a little bit like feeling your way around in room with your eyes closed but your spouse or partner has their eyes open. So, you say, “You feel sad when I didn’t come to your work event because coming to a work event is a sign of the closeness of our relationship. Is that right?” The question at the end indicates that you aren’t telling the other person what their emotions should be or that you think you know them better than they know themselves. The question indicates a humility and an intention at once. With a question you acknowledge that you don’t know everything about the person’s emotional experience. With the question you demonstrate the intention to find out more about their emotional experience.
I have seen situations in couples therapy where the empathizing partner states the wrong emotion and the wrong reasons for it but who then ends with a question the way I have described and the conversation goes well. Empathy isn’t always about just getting the right answer, it is about demonstrating the intention to connect your emotional lives over time.
I have a final note about the comprehension step of empathy. The skills listed above aren’t in any order. You can use them interchangeably as necessary until you and your lover feel that comprehension has been established.
If it is difficult to understand your lover’s emotion, it can be doubly difficult to do that at the same time as accessing your own vulnerable emotions. Yet, that is exactly what the next step, Connection, is all about. The steps in comprehension above can be done in any order, but the steps in the Connection step seem to work better in my therapeutic experience if offered in order.
Just as the comprehension skill includes questions which indicate intention, the connection skill also includes intention to connect with a slight difference. In this process, the intention is phrased a little more explicitly as in, “I want to be here with you so you aren’t alone in your sadness.” This more explicit statement of the intention leads well into some of the other aspects of the connection sub-skill.
Expressing tender feelings toward your partner requires finding your direct emotional reaction to your partner’s experience and not just to your reaction to the fact that their emotions happened. Let me explain the difference. Let’s say that you brought dinner home for your husband because he had covered for you while you stayed late at work and you wanted to express appreciation but instead of experiencing this gift the way you intended, he gots hurt because he had been thinking that the two of you would get to bond while making dinner together. In this situation a reaction might include a defense, “But I didn’t try to hurt you, I was doing something nice.” True. You are focusing on your emotional experience though and not empathizing. If you want to empathize, you have to consider the other person’s emotional experience, almost as if their emotional experience was caused by someone else. For example, “I’m really sad that I hurt you by bringing dinner home. I want you to feel close to me, not hurt. This acknowledgement of the chain of emotional events isn’t accepting fault, it is just acknowledging the truth of the other person’s emotional process. You may not have intended to hurt your husband by bringing dinner home, yet it happened. Now that it happened, despite your intentions otherwise, how do you feel about the existence of this pain in someone you love?
The final step in this connection process is asking what you could do to help. Often I see one member of a couple jump past all the other steps and at best get to this one. At worst, they simply assume what will fix their partner’s negative emotion (read: make it go away) and try to do what they think will fix it. That is, they apologize and try to do something if possible to “make it right”. Unfortunately, the apology without the empathy first, won’t feel sincere to most people and the attempts to fix the emotion aren’t actually the things that will help the wife feel better. So, imagine this time that a male in a heterosexual couple brought dinner home to his wife and hurt her because she had other hopes and expectations. He does all the other steps listed above and then says, “Is there anything I can do to soothe the hurt you feel?” Doing this, he establishes humility by indicating that he doesn’t know what she needs, he communicates an intention to connect by not running away from her emotions, and he expresses a desire to work with her to help her feel better, not just to make the emotion go away.
When I guide people through the empathy skill as described above, they often feel more comfortable when conflicts arise. When using empathy conflicts are understood through the lens of emotions, not just through the points of argument. This means that more creative solutions can be found and offered. Resolution of arguments are more effective because they don’t just find a technical compromise but establish an emotional connection through a resolution.