The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center helps couples improve communication skills and increase intimacy. 

The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center helps couples improve communication skills and increase intimacy. 

Empathy is Everything

            As therapists we are taught that empathy is vital to our practice. What is empathy, anyway? Why is it so important in therapy? Can it be just as important in other relationships? The title here acts as a bit of a spoiler. I obviously believe empathy is quite important in relationships. The truth is, I believe if empathy were taught, trained and valued in how we raise our children as much as say, reading, we would have a much better world. I feel very strongly that empathy is the life-blood of relationships of all kinds. Love and trust are often cited as two key relationship ingredients. Empathy seems to me the work of love and trust in action. Let’s start with psychology’s favorite uncle, Carl Rogers’ definition of empathy. He described empathy as, the ability, “to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person.” This is to say that empathy is the act of setting aside my own frame of reference, my own ego, in the way I am listening, so that I can come as close as possible to seeing another’s way of thinking and being. Because most of us are not taught about empathy, this actually can take a bit of stretching to get used to. However, in this time when we seem so polarized politically and culturally from understanding one another, I cannot say enough about the importance of empathy. I will be speaking in this blog of how empathy can improve your personal relationships, with friends, family and lovers. Yet, I encourage you to imagine empathy as a world changing superpower we can all develop and hone with the potential for impacting business, government, law enforcement and environmental practices. I will also speak a bit to the experience natural empaths have, which can be tough in a world, which fails to honor the gift or teach them how to control it.

            First let’s look at some different kinds of empathic experience and examine how one might incorporate them into relating with loved ones. The way I began to learn empathy was through effort and at first more of an intellectual exercise than an intuitive sense. Anyone can learn this form of empathy. It just requires difference and curiosity about that difference. I listened to introvert friends of mine note differences they saw between us. In my twenties I was rather boisterous and took up a lot of space in public. It was pointed out to me that for some introverts or people with histories of trauma, this could be unsettling, especially in coffee shops where people are trying to focus. I listened with all of my attention because I cared about these people. I also saw that they were clearly impacted and trying to help me, not hurt me. This is why I say empathy is trust and love in action. It takes a lot of both to inspire one to try to reach across to a different viewpoint. Listening like this with your complete attention is the first step toward empathy. You may have to reprogram the way you listen. I came from a big family where everyone was always talking over the top of each other. This was a part of why I was so loud in coffee shops. I had to stop listening for something I could cleverly respond to, or even thinking about what I was going to say. Try to notice when you are listening to the other person and linking what they are saying to yourself, your feelings, your experience, this time something similar happened to you. Forget about all of that, set it aside as you notice. You aren’t abandoning yourself. You do not have to forget forever that you have your own perspective. Just acknowledge it and put it on a shelf for later. While you are listening, listen as if the person speaking is the only person on earth. Listen to them as if you do not exist. Just open a space in your heart and your mind, a blank, wide- open space, and let them fill it. If you are not used to this, it will take practice. You will have to spend some energy at first just noticing that you are still thinking about you and noticing what you would like to say, and so on. That is ok. All things worth learning take some effort. Stick with it, because if you get nothing else out of this blog, learning deep listening in and of itself will help you in all of your relationships.

            You might notice as you practice deep listening that you are more emotionally stirred than you used to be when you were mostly thinking of clever things to say in response. This is a good sign. This means you are connecting in empathy with the person to whom you are listening. Great job! Now comes a bit of the intellectual work I was talking about. After the conversation has ended, hold the person in your mind, try to think your way into their experience, and maybe do some research. Let’s go back to my introverted friend with the trauma history who was trying to nicely point out how I was disrupting the coffee shop. I walked away from that and thought, “Hmm, yeah, the difference between introverts and extroverts is that introverted folks feel drained of energy by interacting with people, while extroverts get energy from human contact. I can see why having to be aware of this extra energy in the room would add to the drain they are experiencing. I can certainly understand how folks who grew up in homes with violence like they did would be likely to be impacted by loud voices and unstable movements.” You can carry this awareness with you into movies, books, parties and other conversations to continue to gather information. If I was not aware of some of the stated differences between introverts and extroverts, I would want to do some research on how introverts define themselves, how they describe their experience and listen deeply there as well, either going to the internet or to other introvert friends. Remember the goal is simply to understand their experience with as much accuracy as possible, getting all the meanings and emotions of the other person, as Rogers said, “as if one were the other person.” This is not about winning any arguments.

            In a relationship this combination of deep inquiry and intellectual curiosity will take you far. Let’s say your sister is trying to explain to you why she feels like mom liked you best. This is something you have been fighting about for years. Sometimes you fight hard about it and sometimes it is more of a joke, but it is always there. Using deep listening and empathy you might be able to finally get through this. So she makes a joke and says, “…blah, blah, blah, mom liked you best anyways!”  Turn to her with your new powers of open, sensitive listening and just ask, sincerely and with kindness why she has always believed that. Don’t listen to refute her. Don’t worry about having things to say. Just listen. Listen to understand her emotions, her meanings and how she has constructed them. There will probably be some defensiveness and mistrust on her part as you may have fought about this more than a few thousand times. Yet, as she notices you are really hearing her, she will likely open up more. Give her plenty of space to talk. Then, reflect that you heard her when she said, “XYZ, that mom gave you more toys at Christmas, and has pictures of your kids on her nicer wall, or whatever.” Tell her that you hear how those things really hurt her. Just leave it at that for now. Be with her feelings. You may have your own case for the reverse, that mom liked her best. You do not have to abandon that forever to be with your sister’s experience for a bit.

Then, just as I described above, hold your sister in your awareness for a while after the discussion. Think about the points she made, the way she spoke, her tears or clenched jaw or shaking speech. Try to remember the situations she described and feel your way into them. What would you feel like if your mom did those things to you? Is it possible you have missed things in your perception (we all do all the time!)? Maybe research in this case would look like talking to your mom or aunt or other sibling to see what they think. Maybe your sister recounted early life events you cannot even remember. Even if the other perspectives don’t fully corroborate your sister’s account, that doesn’t mean you should dismiss it. We all have our own perceptions. Empathy is not about who is right, it is about seeing the other person’s side. It is not about winning fights. It is about creating greater peace.

            You may find after you have worked a bit at developing your listening skills and your intellectual abilities to grasp other’s experiences that another type of empathy emerges. Something I will call intuitive empathy. This arises without effort – someone walks into a room and I feel sadness all over them. This isn’t magic. Sadness is conveyed by body language, gait, speech patterns, etc. You have been growing this capacity as you listened to people deeply, watched their facial expressions and felt their feelings with them. The intuitive empathic connection is the part where I feel this stranger’s sadness in my gut every time I look at them and notice my heart is heavy just being in the room with them. I believe this felt-sense kind of empathy is also the kind that most naturally-gifted empaths have, so I will also talk about those folks a little here. I am sure you can appreciate how difficult it would be to have this gift as a child. How complex it must be to sort all of this out in a world that does not teach empathic people what their gifts are and how to use them. Some of you must be wondering why you would ever want such a ‘gift’ as to be able to always feel the very sad person in the room.

            There are almost infinite practices that can help you stay with your own experience if you get (or are born) too good at being in someone else’s feelings. In the above example, once you realize the source of your heaviness lies outside of you, you can bring your consciousness back to your center by focusing on your breath. Or try feeling into your emotional state right before you noticed this sad person, or notice the way your feet feel on the solid ground or that you have toes. Boom! You’re back in you-land. But you still have this fancy  super-power to understand other people. What if the sad person who just walked in the room is your child or your partner? You have been empathically listening to them for years so you’ll know exactly what they need when they are sad. You can have the doughnut, or the lavender oil, or perfect smile and shoulder to cry on waiting for them. Ultimately, empathy is everything in a relationship, because winning in a relationship isn’t winning fights, it is having fewer of them and getting more out of the conflicts you do have. If you are joining your partner/mother/sibling/child even for a little while in their experience, understanding as best you can what it means to them, you will find they are more open and you feel more like you are in something together.

 Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center while blogging for The SF Marriage and Couples Center. 

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center while blogging for The SF Marriage and Couples Center. 

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