Using the Power of Empathy in Relationships

by Gary Gilles

Without question, our greatest need in relationships is to feel understood. Yet this is not a common experience for the majority of people. Much of our contact with others, even those closest to us, is merely an exchange of information about events, time, tasks, etc. This leaves our minds full but our hearts empty. It is also why so many feel lonely and disconnected to others despite interacting with dozens of people every day.

But on those rare occasions when someone attempts to understand you in a deeper way, it seems to fill you up. Their level of interest makes you feel valued. And chances are good that you would like to spend more time with them. But what is going on in this relationship that is absent in most of your other ones? The answer is empathy.

What is empathy?

Empathy is a willingness to get inside the other person, to look at life through their eyes, emotions, and frame of reference. You’re not just gathering information, you’re trying to get inside the skin of the other person as much as possible. As you might imagine, this is not easy. But empathy is one of the most powerful skills you can use to foster emotional intimacy in any relationship. And with deliberate effort and practice you can see rapid results. The principles that will enable you to begin practicing empathy are:

  • Listening for the emotion
  • Reflecting what you hear
  • Probing for the context

Listening for the emotion

A recent conversation with a friend provides a good example for this principle. I sincerely asked him how he was doing and he responded with a flood of details about how work, home life, children, health concerns, and other issues were creating problems for him. After about ten minutes of just listening I broke in to the conversation and simply said, “You’re feeling overwhelmed by all that you have to juggle right now.” He abruptly stopped talking and looked at me as if I had slapped him in the face and said, “Yes. That’s it exactly.” I merely put into a few words what he was trying to say in all his verbiage. All I did was listen for the emotion hidden behind his words.

Any time a person makes a statement about something of significance, there is emotion attached to it. It could be joy, contentment, anger, sadness or a host of other options. The emotion is the core of what we want others to know about us. But we don’t often know what we are feeling to be able to say it outright. So we focus on the details of an event and try to make sense of it that way. Your goal is to cut through those details and ask yourself, “What is this person feeling and what is it connected to? ”Try using this simple model. You feel _(emotion)__ because of _(event/situation)_. Once you have an idea you move on to the next step.

Reflecting what you hear

In the conversation with my friend I said, “You feel overwhelmed (emotion) by all the things you are juggling right now” (situation). His response indicated that I hit the bulls-eye on my first attempt. But this may not happen every time. In fact it probably won’t, especially as you begin practicing.

But there is nothing lost in trying to grasp the emotion, even if you’re off the mark. For instance, if I had said to my friend, “You feel sad because you’re having health problems.”  He probably would have said something like, “Yeah, I guess there is some sadness, but…” and gone on to give more detail. This added detail usually provides clarity so that you can make another attempt at capturing the core emotion and what it’s connected to.

When you reflect back to the person what you hear them say you not only give them a chance to clarify but you communicate that you are truly listening to them. This is the heart of empathy: deep listening and reflection that show you care enough to understand their situation. Once you have communicated that you hear the emotion behind the words and they have affirmed that you’re on target, you’re ready to understand the larger context.

Probing for the context

Think of empathy as being shaped like an hourglass. You begin broadly at the top with lots of information and narrow it tightly to an emotion in the middle. Then on the lower half you broaden again to understand the bigger picture of how the emotion plays out.

So back to my conversation with my friend. I know that he’s overwhelmed by all of the turmoil in his life. So to probe this further I would ask pointed questions.

  • How is this feeling of overwhelm affecting you at home, on the job, etc?
  • How are you coping with these challenges right now?
  • Do you have resources you can turn to help you through this period of time?
  • Etc.

Notice that I keep the probing focused on the emotion and don’t get sidetracked by the many details about events. For instance, I could ask, “What kind of work do you do? How long have you been at this job? Can you take time off to straighten some of these things out?, and so on. These wouldn’t be inappropriate questions, but they divert attention away from the emotion, which is the central issue of empathy.

Caution

Empathy requires courage. When someone tells you they are struggling, hurt, angry, etc. the reflexive response is often to try and “fix” the situation by offering them advice. But what they most often want is just to be heard; to know that someone cares. There is also a strong urge most people feel in conversation to inject their thoughts when they come to mind. Resist this urge when trying to empathize. It will only divert you further away from the emotion you are trying to understand.

Finally, remember that when practicing empathy you are inviting the other person to be vulnerable. Treat what they say with sensitivity, non-judgement and care. When you let them speak honestly, listen deeply, and offer them acceptance amid their struggle, you offer them a gift far more potent than any advice you might have.

© Gary Gilles, 2012

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