As a couple’s therapist, part of what I do is observe couples communicating with each other. Two key elements that are crucial for effective communication are empathy and compassion. When I see couples in my practice and I watch them communicate with each other I find that although they are hearing the other person they are not listening. What’s the difference, you ask? Hearing is when someone hears the words that are being said in order to plan a rebuttal; they are hearing to defend. Listening on the other hand requires empathy and compassion. Listening with empathy and compassion is crucial for successful communication amongst couples because it fuels connection.
So let’s define empathy. Empathy promotes connection. It requires the ability to take the perspective of another person, staying out of judgment, recognizing the emotion/feeling the other person is experiencing and then communicating that emotion back to the person. When couples communicate and are practicing being empathetic they are actually feeling with the other person. This is very difficult to do if the person is in a defensive space and is hearing their partner’s words as criticisms or attacks.
What I have found is that some individuals lack empathy. This is especially true when there is also addiction at play. I don’t believe we are necessarily born with empathy. I believe we learn it as children from our caregivers. The problem is, many of our caregivers did not have the training in empathy either. So here we are, in a romantic relationship, where what we want most is to be understood and listened to, and we have no clue how to do that. From my own personal experience in my marriage it took a lot of willingness and open mindedness to accept some of these ideas. Including that I may not have been taught as a child how to have empathy. A lot of us get the messages as children that our feelings are not correct or inappropriate. How many of us have heard when we cried as children, “I will give you something to cry about”, or “ kids in other parts of the world are starving, what do you have to complain about?” these types of messages basically tell me what I am feeling is wrong and I am going to be told why. This dynamic is replayed in our partnerships many times. This type of communication promotes disconnection. Which brings be back to the mention of addiction.
Many people don’t understand addiction. They think it’s a moral problem or a problem of will power. Addiction is all about the desire to bond and connect. I am either going to connect with other human beings or with drugs, sex, alcohol, work etc.. If human beings in my life don’t have empathy and compassion I am most likely going to connect with one of the previous things mentioned.
In a lot of my couples when they are discussing their difficulty in communicating and connecting it never fails that one or both people are “connecting” to something or someone else.
So if you want to practice empathy, next time your partner, child, parent, co-worker wants to talk to you about an “issue/problem” they are having practice the following: 5 pts.
- Consciously leave your ideas and feelings at the door
- Take their perspective. What is it like for them to have this feeling, emotion or thought.
- Stay out of judgment. (This is probably the most difficult)
- Recognize the feeling and emotion the person is experiencing
- Communicate an understanding of that emotion by giving them a personal example of how you have felt that same emotion /feeling under different circumstances.
If you have any questions or would like some extra guidance don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected]
You can also find an excellent Brene Brown YouTube video on Empathy: