Empathy: A Detailed Example

Being able to empathize with your significant other is a critical step in managing and maintaining a healthy relationship. Needless to say, it becomes almost impossible to do if they are criticizing you, but it can also be quite difficult to do if your partner is complaining about something that they wish you would do differently. We often react defensively or don’t listen completely to show our partners that we respect their point of view.

The key to empathizing is to put your feelings and thoughts aside and simply listen to your partner trusting that after they are done, you will have a turn to express your perspective, too. The best way to improve your empathy skills is to identify when in the conversation you stop listening and start thinking of your responses to what they are saying. Look back to the example of Alka and Ravi and imagine that you are in Alka’s shoes. At what point in the example do you notice yourself thinking anything other than, “I’m trying to understand what my partner is saying to me?” For example, when do you start thinking of how to prove that Ravi is wrong or he is too sensitive to your father’s criticism?

A great way to ensure that you are attentively listening to your partner is to repeat what they say after they are finished. This achieves two goals:

1) it forces you to focus on what your partner is saying so you don’t have the opportunity to think of your own responses and arguments in return and

2) you make sure that you are actually hearing what your husband or wife is saying to you. So often our partners say something to us and we translate it to mean something completely different. For example, if a wife says, “I wish you would do the dishes after dinner more often” her husband might take that to mean he doesn’t help out around the house enough, when in fact she was just making a comment about specifically the dishes.

After you have repeated back what you think you understood, have your partner readdress any points they think you may have missed. Once he or she feel like you understand what he/she is saying, take a moment to think about what your partner must be feeling like. Take Alka and Ravi’s example, Ravi never says actually that he feels belittled but Alka, putting herself in his shoes, can understand that when a parent or parent-in-law criticizes you to the point that that you are unhappy, you must feel very small.

To see how empathy can continue to strengthen a conversation, here is a continuation of Alka and Ravi’s talk:

Alka: I understand. He comes over, points out all the things you’re doing wrong and compares himself to you to show you how you don’t measure up. That must feel like he’s belittling you and that you’re not a good husband and that’s a terrible way to feel, especially in your own home.

Ravi: Well I don’t feel like I’m not a good husband, but he does definitely belittle me. I just can’t stand it when he goes on and on like that and what can I say to him? He’s my father-in-law!

Alka: I see what you’re saying. So it’s not as if he makes you feel like a bad husband but it does feel like belittles you. Did I get it right this time?

Ravi: Yes.

Alka: That has to be so frustrating to have him make you feel so small and then to feel like you can’t say anything to him because he’s my father, your father-in-law. You want to respect the relationship but you do not want him to keep treating you that way.

Ravi: Exactly.

Alka: That’s a really fine line to balance. Must be really stressful whenever he comes here.

(Notice Ravi never mentioned feeling stressed, but Alka is empathizing with his experience by putting herself in his shoes and understanding that the experience must be stressful for him.)

Ravi: Yes it really is. I don’t enjoy his visits here and I feel bad because I want a good relationship between our families but he just makes it so hard.

Alka: I can see that. That must make you sad sometimes because I know how important family is to you.

(Again, Alka is conveying to him that she knows him and his values well to know that when a relationship in the family is not going well, he must feel sad, something he never actually said himself.)

Ravi: Yes sometimes I do feel sad. I’m glad you understand!

Alka: Good I’m glad that you helped me to understand too. (pause) I’m not sure I entirely agree with you though.

Ravi: Ok.

Alka: Well, I think when he comes here and says those things it’s his way of connecting with you. He doesn’t really talk or open up much but he knows what it’s like to be a husband and so he tries to say things that he thinks that husbands do so that you can bond over them like fixing the light bulbs.

Ravi: Ya well, he shouldn’t say it like that! I don’t want to bond with him then when he talks like that to me.

(Ravi’s defensive response is a clear indication that he wasn’t ready to hear Alka’s contrary point of view. At this point, they should both agree to talk about it later once he’s cooled off. If he thinks he can truly listen to Alka without thinking of responses back while she’s talking, then they can continue.)

Alka: I’m not negating what you’re saying I’m just giving you my point of view. Do you want to talk about this later?

Ravi: No it’s ok I’ll listen.

Alka: I think the problem is that you both have a different style of talking and having a relationship with people. So what you think is belittling, is really just his way of connecting with you. I’m not necessarily condoning it but I’m just trying to help you understand what might be going on.

Ravi: Ok. I never thought of that. So what do we do now?

Alka: Well, I can talk to him and try to give him different ways of connecting with you. But maybe you can also remember that he doesn’t mean this in the way you’re taking it. And if you can think of other ways to strengthen your relationship with him, let me know!

Ravi: Ok that sounds good. I know he likes to BBQ, maybe next time we have them over, he and I can do that together. And if he starts getting too critical, you can step in and say something?

Alka: That sounds like a good plan.

Although this is a simplified version of such a conversation, you can see the power of empathy in conveying a strong message of trust and value to your partner. You can see several times in the conversation when it could have turned into a fight but because of Alka’s empathic response, she helped Ravi feel comfortable and safe in expressing his feelings about such a sensitive subject. Once he felt valued and like she truly understood him, he became open to considering different options of how to handle the situation.

When we feel upset about something, we make ourselves vulnerable when we share that with our partners. A response that says our feelings are important to the other helps strengthen the communication and the overall relationship and helps avoid turning the conversation into an argument.

What do you think about empathy?

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