Empathy: Medicine that Heals Relationships

Resentful CoupleHealing a broken relationship starts with empathy.

Why? Because when someone listens with empathy, the emotional distance between the two persons shrinks. You feel closer, understood, heard. Does it feel good to be known? To be taken seriously? To be respected? Of course it does. And that’s why empathy is an effective tool for healing.

How good are you at listening and responding with empathy?

I learned most of my empathy skills over years of work as a therapist. For a therapist, empathy is the first and basic “tool of the trade.” What a hammer is to the carpenter, or the wrench is to the auto mechanic. It means that when you listen to someone, you listen for and even imagine what the other person’s experience is like. And you communicate that understanding.

But it’s not just good therapists who need this skill. Moms and dads do too. And teachers. Married persons. Great bosses and leaders. Empathy is the basis of how we connect and really understand. It is a key way we build trust, how we stop arguing and re-connect instead. It’s the best cure for anger and resentment.

Is it Time for You to Improve Your Empathy Skills?

If you’re experiencing repeated arguments, hurt, disconnection and resentment with someone important in your life, then it might be time to make a change. Specifically, a change in how you listen and respond. The skill of empathy is the first and most important step.

But can empathy and empathic communication really be learned? Or is it an ability that you are or aren’t born with? Yes and yes. From an article in a recent BBC news magazine, “According to the latest neuroscience research, 98% of people …have the ability to empathize wired into their brains–an in-built capacity for stepping into the shoes of others and understanding their feelings and perspectives.” It goes on to propose ways in which you can learn to do this, and I invite you to read that (the link is below).

I work with my patients in my office on this every day. I teach a very specific approach that was invented by Dr. David Burns, MD. I use it mostly with couples, or people who are having relationship problems and who really want to 1) get closer and solve their relationship issues, and 2) who are willing to do something about the way they react.

In other words, this method is powerful because it heals tears in connection. But it costs. The ego dies a bit when we focus on the other. You’ve got to want to look at your own role in the relationship, to take responsibility. So if you don’t want to be close to someone, ignore what’s written below. Just keep doing what you’re already doing, and keep the relationship you have.

An Example of Empathy Lacking

When someone makes a disparaging, critical or blaming remark, the automatic tendency is to defend and even counter attack. It’s probably hard-wired into us. And it’s certainly culturally accepted. No one likes to feel attacked. And in close relationships, this habit of attack/counterattack and escalation is toxic.

A simple example from my office: A newlywed couple sat down and began to argue in front of me. Recounting examples of why things aren’t going well, and obviously irritated and frustrated, she said to her husband “I have to do everything by myself for the past few months. You come home and just don’t even help with the baby anymore, it’s like you don’t even care, you’re so selfish.”

Her husband can’t resist the bait of an argument they’ve had before, especially since there’s a third party in the room (me) and he defends himself with, “Do you know how hard I’ve been busting my ass? Can you just let me come home and give me some space?!”

Can you guess, as I did, that obviously something has changed in the relationship? I began seeing lots of new pressures, a lack of a plan to cope with all the new and difficult challenges, and lots of new feelings that perhaps no one really expected.

Change the Pattern: Recognize the Other Person’s Truth

This couple was caught in a cycle of blaming and feeling like a victim. Stopping the cycle means one person choosing to be close over being right. At least, that’s what successful couples will tell you. In fact, they’ll say that being close makes being right seem inconsequential, because in close relationships, we tend to look out for and protect each other anyway. We don’t worry about being right when we know the other person has our back.

So first, slow down and listen for the truth in what the other person just said. And do this no matter how outrageous or unfair their point of view seems on the surface. Empathy starts with acknowledging that truth. You’ve got to ask yourself, “What bit of truth is in their story?” This is the “ego killier” I mentioned earlier. Acknowledge the truth in their story, in their reality. That’s job one.

Second, acknowledge the other’s feelings. Name and say outloud what they are probably feeling and thinking. Get into the habit of asking yourself, “How are her/his feelings of anger or upset understandable, given what they believe?”

This is an emotionally powerful experience. Think about it: if we were lucky to have attentive and caring parents, this is what they did for us. When we were hurt, they saw it and named it and taught us that it’s okay to feel that way. It didn’t solve the problem of the moment, but it did let us know we weren’t alone, we were cared for, we were important. So see the truth in how they feel. That’s job two.

And finally, ask for more information. When I talk about this to my patients, I tell them, “If you were rushed to the E.R. with a bullet wound, would you simply want the doctor to remove the bullet, sew you up and send you home? Or should they also check for other damage, shock, bullet fragments, and maybe monitor you, etc. before they declare the problem solved?”

So that’s job three with empathy: probe gently for more information, let the other person really get their feelings out. Jump into the emotional world they are in and be there with them.

Correcting the Problem With Empathy

I sat and taught both of the couple above empathy communication skills in a later session. What the husband learned was to hear his wife’s anger and blame and respond differently. What he learned to say to her when this issue came up again was, “You’re right, I’ve been holing up by myself every night when I get home. I feel so pressured and frustrated and tired at work and I just need some space.  But I can see how that’s really upsetting to you, no wonder you think I don’t care. We need to work on this. How have you been dealing with me shutting down?”

The response led to a real conversation. He led the way this time when he admitted the factual truth of her statement. He acknowledged her feelings and opinions. And he asked for more information.

Now, there is a temptation to blame the wife for not being empathetic and “nice”. Couldn’t she have presented her anger differently, without being so blaming? Of course, in a perfect world, she would have, and she learned skills to do so in the future. But again, this is ego-killing work—to listen, feel unfairly blamed, and still choose a way to protect the relationship and resolve the hurt that is going on.

Remember: we’re not going for being right or for fairness, per se. We’re going for being effective at feeling close and solving real problems. And paradoxically, when couples are good at being close and solving problems, fairness is often not far behind.

Why does his acknowledging the truth in her anger work? It does many things:

  1. Escalation of the argument stops. She is attacking but suddenly the “other side” is not going to put up a fight. So the dance of blame/guilt/victimization stops.
  2. He feels a bit less angry and irritated because it’s really hard to see her point of view and be very angry.
  3. His response proves that he is not selfish. He obviously cares, otherwise why would he respect her feelings and her truth? Who does this, except someone who actually cares?
  4. She feels heard. She knows she’s not crazy or just a complaining person. She starts to feel safe in that conversation, and in the relationship.
  5. Feeling truly heard allows her then to truly listen and receive what he’s got to say about his feelings and needs.

Ultimately, empathy is a supreme act of love and generosity. It’s also the key habit for relationships that work, for feeling better about yourself and your own life.

If you want to read more, check out Feeling Good Together by David D. Burns, MD, and Can you teach people to have empathy?

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