Have you been in a relationship where your partner, in a particular moment, lacked empathy? You know the scenario. You tell him about something you are struggling with, something that is frustrating you, and you just want him to hear you out and acknowledge that what you’re going through is hard. Instead, he puts on his Mister Fixit hat and gives you solutions and advice on how to change the situation, which leaves you feeling not understood. I think one of the funniest videos I’ve ever seen on this subject is the one where the girlfriend literally has a nail sticking out of her forehead, and she’s trying to talk to her boyfriend about how painful her head feels, and how it aches, and throbs, and how some days it causes her great consternation, and he’s looking at her in disbelief – with this nail sticking out of her head – and is so wanting to point out to her that what she is feeling may be because of this nail —  but she just wants him to show her some empathy.  (Have a watch – and a laugh — CLICK HERE).

As difficult as it may be for some of us, empathy is one of the most influential factors in building a healthy relationship. And empathy is a key competence of emotional intelligence.

Merrium-Webster defines empathy as the capacity for understanding, being aware of, sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another –and reacting appropriately. (www.merriam-webster.com) Empathy is the capacity to know – emotionally – the feelings and experience of others, and being able to express or communicate our feelings of understanding. And empathy is the key to a healthy relationship. When people feel listened to and understood at a deep emotional level, and when that understanding is acknowledged or communicated, they feel affirmed and validated.

“Relationships often suffer because people get so caught up in their own experience that they simply can’t relate to what someone else is going through. They assert their opinions and hand out advice – all the while not truly appreciating the other person’s struggles.” – Leslie Becker -Phelps, Ph.D.

People who are empathetic:

  • are tuned-in to a wide range of emotional signals
  • listen for and sense the felt, but unspoken emotions of others
  • show sensitivity to others’ perspectives
  • are able to take appropriate actions based upon their understanding of others’ needs

In his book Social Intelligence, author Daniel Goleman outlines, “…the word “empathy” is used in three distinct senses:  knowing another person’s feelings; feeling what that person feels; and responding compassionately to another’s distress.” (Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, 2006, p. 58).

In other words, we notice others, feel what they are feeling, then act in a manner that helps them.

“Empathy is truly the heart of the relationship,” said Carin Goldstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Without it, the relationship will struggle to survive.”

Also from Social Intelligence (p. 110), Goleman writes: “Our experience of oneness – a sense of merging or sharing identities – increases whenever we take someone else’s perspective and strengths the more we see things from their point of view.  The moment when empathy becomes mutual has an especially rich resonance. Two tightly looped people mesh minds, even smoothly finishing sentences for each other – a sign of a vibrant relationship that marital researchers call ‘high-intensity validation’.”

Maybe empathy is not one of your strongest qualities – you tend to problem-solve for others when really what they need is to be heard. But empathy, like many behaviors, can be learned and developed.

Here are a few things you can try:

  • Learn to listen. Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next, and truly focus on what the other person is saying, both verbally and non-verbally. “Tell me more” is a great response when someone is trying to express their feelings to you.
  • Ask clarifying questions (without advice) so you truly understand what they are trying to tell you.
  • Develop sensitivity. Do you know the difference between behaviors that validate others and those that invalidate others? Diminishing, belittling, judging, or dismissing others and their feelings make others feel demoralized. Begin replacing invalidating, insensitive behaviors with sensitive behaviors.
  • Tune into hidden meanings. What is it he/she is really wanting, despite what they’re saying? (to be respected, to be included, to be acknowledged, etc.)
  • Learn to pick up on the emotions that accompany the other person’s stat Don’t just listen to the words, listen to the feelings that are being expressed.
  • Acknowledge what you think you’ve heard. Paraphrase, repeat back, and clarify the emotions you think you are hearing (e. “That must be really frustrating,” or ”Sounds like you’re pretty excited about this…”)
  • Withhold your judgments; when temped to criticize or dismiss the opinions of another, stop. Step back and consider, on an emotional level as well as a cognitive level, what the other person may be experiencing and what merits another’s point of view may have.

“If there is any great secret of success in life, it lies in the ability to put yourself in the other person’s place and to see things from his point of view – as well as your own.” – Henry Ford

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