Couple embracing and showing empathy

“Empathy dissolves alienation.” –Carl Rogers

Have you ever talked to your partner, friend, or even therapist about something that was bothering you and heard suggestions like “You should do this; it will help,” or been given reassurance that things were not so bad: “You know, the positive here is that you will be able to….”? You likely have a good relationship with the person you were speaking to and felt a little better, but something important was missing—true empathy. When you respond to another’s emotional pain with opinion, advice, or attempts to shift what you see as a glass-is-half-empty perspective to a positive one, you miss a key opportunity to offer real support through empathy.

There is a bias in our culture against “negative emotions”—sadness, disappointment, frustration, unhappiness. This bias is probably the biggest obstacle to true empathy and it comes from logical positivism, a belief that any problem can be solved with logic—reasoning it out. It has been reinforced by a Norman Vincent Peale-style approach to emotions (the author of The Power of Positive Thinking), Among other critics, Albert Ellis, founder of modern Cognitive Therapy, called Peale’s work “brainwashing” and “unsubstantiated personal opinion.” In essence this approach is emotional dismissiveness; at its worst it is a form of contempt for another’s feelings.

When correcting another’s emotions, the message is something like this: “If you are unhappy, change your thoughts; if you’re still unhappy you’re not trying hard enough, and you’re not taking my advice so don’t bother to ask again; and really it’s your own darn fault.” The rational, problem-solving, emotionally dismissive image personified is Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. Interestingly, however, most Star Trek episodes involve Spock coming to terms with the fact that he, like everyone else, does have emotions and they provide important information. Dismissing emotions is the problem. In fact, our reason or logic (left-brain functions) need to get emotional information first in order to later decide what to do.

Emotions do not disappear just because they have been dismissed. When your partner is given advice, opinion, or directed away from their emotions, they now have two problems: the original issue and the feeling that their partner does not support them emotionally. When giving advice the message is “You are not smart enough to figure this out on your own.” Empathy is different; it is a connective act which helps your partner find the information in the emotion, but the connection must come first. Empathy helps us feel connected and in doing so we can grasp our vaporous, seemingly indescribable emotions. Empathy helps your partner move the active area of their brain from the right to the left side (John Gottman calls this a bi-lateral brain exercise). And, empathy is related to more positive outcomes (Carl Rogers).

Empathy is all about listening carefully, feeling yourself into another’s shoes, and reflecting your partner’s thoughts and feelings to them. Below are some suggestions on how to do this:

How to Offer Empathy:

  1. Look to Connect: By being attuned to each other, you know when your partner is bothered and needs to talk. To do this, create habits of connecting. For example, look to connect when you see your partner at the end of the day, when the kids are in bed, and in the morning before heading to work.
  1. Listen to Understand versus Respond: Most of the time we listen to respond— formulating a list of what we disagree with and of our solutions, our agenda. Instead, listen to understand—“I wonder what meaning this has for her” is a good thought to keep in mind. Open and warm body language also helps.
  1. Feel the Emotion: Real listening itself offers empathy because your partner feels they are not alone; they know you are trying to understand. Feeling another’s emotion is an internal process whereby you connect with a time when you felt similarly. In essence, you are transplanting a feeling into your own emotional system, getting to “this is what it feels like,” and then verbalizing this.
  1. Avoid Self-Description: Although you are connecting to a similar feeling in yourself (or knowledge you have never felt that way), do not describe your experience. It is tempting to say, “This happened to me to; this is what I did,” but this can detract from your partner’s emotions.
  1. Reflect: This is the active part of listening. Repeat what you heard, in a gentle way, to see if you got it right. Saying something like, “I hear you saying that you slept in the morning and when you got to work your felt embarrassed that your boss pointed out you were late in a way that everyone heard. Is that right?”
  1. What Else? Sometimes Empathy is followed with a hug or physical support; sometimes your partner may ask “What do you think I should do?” You have connected, your partner has felt supported, now advice can work, if needed.
  1. When to Seek Help: Asking for and offering empathy are vulnerable acts. Empathy is much harder if there is a persistent pattern of criticism and attack between you and your partner. If there is a build-up of resentment and hurt, you may need help. If your emotional disconnect is too great or if conflict is too damaging, see a qualified professional.

There is a capacity present in each person to explore, understand, and resolve their troubles in a close relationship when real warmth and understanding (empathy) are provided. (Carl Rogers)

Empathy is one of the most important forms of support in relationships; it involves vulnerability, trust, and respect. You also show a deep trust and respect because you know your partner has the resources and skills to deal with issues once they feel connected (and if they want help they will ask). There is self-trust at work too—you trust that you can hear your partner’s emotions without feeling responsible for fixing them or trying to get away from them; emotions are about connection.

Empathy versus sympathy: