The most common definition of empathy that you have probably heard is the act of “stepping into someone else’s shoes”. It is the genuine attempt to fully understand what it is like to be that person. That sounds great, but, unfortunately, we generally struggle with this. We often get narrow vision of our perspective and place a higher value on our perspective than others. In conflict or disagreement we often make the mistake of listening to reply rather than LISTENING TO UNDERSTAND. This mistake can make or break the outcome of our communication with our spouse and others.
Let’s explore an example of how empathy is often lacking in our communication with our significant others.
Spouse expresses a complaint and related emotion….
“You don’t appreciate what I do around the house. You don’t say thank you and you have not been cleaning up after yourself like you promised. When are you ever going to pull your weight in this relationship?!”
Natural response for the spouse might be defend that (of course) and we often try to do that with logic. Some version of…
You shouldn’t feel that way and let me tell you all the data I have to prove that your feelings are illogical….I took out the garbage on Monday, I told you that I appreciated that you got me coffee this morning…
This might seem like a reasonable reply but ask yourself this… Has it ever resulted in your partner saying “you are so right and you are so smart and I no longer feel upset with you”? That is what we are striving for, but it rarely happens when we try to combat emotion with logic. What often happens is the opposite, they dig their heels into their position and turn up the volume on it. You become greater opponents. You have not acknowledged what if FEELS like to be them and therefore they have to say it somehow in a bigger way.
Logic doesn’t work on its own because it is missing a critical partner…Empathy. With empathy, we are able to reduce the negative emotion. We are also able to create influence. No one wants to consider your perspective if they don’t feel like you have a good understanding of their perspective.
NOTE: Saying “I understand” does not cut it. It has become a meaningless phrase. Your job as an empathetic listener is to make them believe you truly understand. How do you do that? That is right! Empathy. Identify the emotion of their story/perspective.
Here is what the spouses response with empathy may sound like…
Even though we have discussed this before, you still feel like I don’t help out enough around the house. This is probably frustrating and stressful for you. It sounds like you feel unappreciated as well.
See all those emotions words: Frustrating, stressful, unappreciated. These are our power players. The front line of empathy. We rarely use emotion words in our communication but, give it a try, notice it’s power. These words disarm the other from their anger, create connection, and allow the other person to let their guard down to eventually hear your perspective. You can find your own, more natural way of using these little empathy soldiers, but I encourage you to give it a try.