What Is Empathy?
Simply put, empathy is understanding: the sensing of another person’s underlying feelings, wants, and emotional dynamics – looking at the world through their lenses – “What would I be feeling if I were him or her?” Empathy is synonymous with phrases such as “being in your shoes” and “soul mates.”
Men and women have different empathic needs of their partners. It is not uncommon to hear women complaining about their partner’s inability to listen closely to them. Likewise, many men are uncomfortable sharing their vulnerabilities, something women can help them with.
Do the following complaints sound familiar?
Woman: “Why can’t he just listen and try to understand my feelings rather than analyze them?”
Man: “I’m not comfortable talking about these feelings and I feel kind of wimpy talking about it with my partner.”
More than likely you can identify with these statements. Each of us has experienced the pain and loneliness of not having our feelings recognized and responded to by our partner.
However, empathizing with your partner does not mean you agree with or approve of their opinions, perceptions, or thoughts.
The Critical Importance of Empathy in Partnerships
Empathy is the cornerstone of a healthy, connected relationship. More than any other emotion, it has the power to melt the ice that has built up between two people. When I see couples in my clinical practice, one of the first things I assess is the level of empathy and emotional safety that exists between them. This gives me insight into the security of their attachment.
Empathy creates a bond between two people and allows them to be vulnerable and to share intimately. If you sense that your partner really “feels your feelings,” you will be more trusting of them and more willing to share yourself. On the other hand, if empathy is absent, sharing will be avoided, and the process of growing apart will likely begin.
The lessons of empathy begin with your parents who set the stage for your ability to trust as well as to empathize in your future relationships. If, however, healthy empathy was not modeled for you, fortunately it’s a skill that can be developed and integrated into your relationships.
Let’s look at the components of empathy and how you can incorporate them into your relationships.
- Effective communication. Express yourself effectively, verbally and nonverbally.
- A strong imagination. See the world from your partner’s perspective, which may be different than yours.
- Self-awareness. First, engage in some introspection so that you understand your own behavior.
- Non-selective listening. You need to not only hear your partner’s words, but also understand the feelings behind them.
- Nonjudgmental attitude. Keep the focus on your partner’s experiences rather than on your circumstances or beliefs.
- A lack of defensiveness. Put aside concerns about “right and wrong” so you can listen emphatically to your partner. Accept each other’s baggage and sensitivities, which may or may not be overcome.
Nick and Emily
The following conversation took place between Nick and Emily the morning after they attended a baby shower for Emily’s sister.
Nick: You did it again and ignored me at the party last night!
Emily: What the heck do you mean? I remember telling you how nice the gifts were that people brought.
Nick: Yeah, sure, what about the rest of the evening when you were working the crowd?
Emily: Excuse me, Nick, I have the right to enjoy myself apart from you. You need to take better care of yourself in social situations.
Nick: Here we go again. It’s always about you.
Nick and Emily continued to argue about their different perceptions of what happened at the party and made no progress toward mutual understanding.
Let’s look at what their dialogue would sound like if empathy were a part of it.
Nick: I felt like you ignored me at your sister’s party last night.
Emily: Actually, I didn’t see it that way. I was making an effort to pay more attention because I know it gets to you when I don’t.
Nick: I appreciate your trying, even though it still felt like I was being ignored.
Emily: I don’t want you to feel ignored. But, you know, Nick, it might be helpful for both of us if you work on building your confidence in social situations so you don’t have to depend on me for that.
Nick: Maybe you are right, but I’m not sure I agree with you. I’ll think about it.
There are several notable differences between the first conversation in which there was an absence of empathy between Nick and Emily and the second one where each had a concern for the other’s needs. Let’s look at those differences:
- In the second dialogue they both let go of their defensiveness and put aside issues of “right and wrong.” so that they were able to listen emphatically to each other, a powerful catalyst for a successful relationship.
- In the second dialogue, they accepted each other’s feelings as valid even though they did not see eye to eye.
- Although Nick was hesitant to accept the truth about his dependency needs, he is willing to take look at himself, another important component of developing empathy.
Behind most couples conflicts is the question of whether your partner only cares about their own needs and wants and doesn’t care enough about your feelings and desires. When there is an emphatic connection and mindful listening, there is no right or wrong battle or defensiveness. Finding solutions to problems is much smoother.