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Empathy: A Key Relationship Skill

By Drs. Rick and Jan Hanson

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Inquire
Empathy is a process of discovery. You study what is under one stone. Then you ask an open-ended question, such as the ones below, that turns over another.

Can you say more about ___________?
How was it for you that ___________?
How do you feel about him/her?
What do you mean when you say _____________?
What's your gut feeling about __________?
What do you think about ____________?
What is really bothering you?
What are you concerned they'll do?
What was the most upsetting part of all that?
What do you wish would have happened instead?
How was this like ____________ [i.e. some similar thing] for you?

Dig Down
The personality is layered like a parfait, with softer and younger material at the bottom. The empathic listener:

  • Tries to get a sense of the softer feelings - hurt, fear, or shame - that are usually behind anger or a tough facade.

  • Imagines the insecure, scared, suffering person behind the other's eyes.

  • Wonders how childhood and other experiences could have affected his or her thoughts, feelings, and wants today.

  • Considers the underlying, positive wants - e.g., safety, autonomy, feeling valued - the other is seeking to fulfill, although perhaps in ways one doesn't like.

  • Inquires gently about the deeper layers - without trying to play therapist. This must be done carefully, usually toward the end of a conversation, without making it seem like the here-and-now elements in what the other is saying are unimportant, especially if they are about you.

Double Check
When we receive a communication, we need to tell the sender, "Message received." Otherwise, he or she will tend to keep broadcasting, ever more powerfully, in an effort to get through. Try questions like these:

"Let me say back what I hear you saying. Are you saying that ______________?"
I'm not sure I fully understand this, but is it like ___________?
Is the key point that ____________?
Is it correct to say that you felt ___________?
So one part is _________, another part is _________, and a third part is __________, right?

The Rewards of Empathy
With a better idea of the feelings and wants of our partner, we are more able to solve problems together. It's like dancing: a couple shines when each person is attuned to the other's mood and rhythms and intentions.

Additionally, when our partner feels understood, he or she is more willing to extend understanding in turn. Once pure survival needs are handled, the deepest question of all in any important relationship is, "Do you understand me?" Until it is answered with a "Yes," that question will keep troubling the waters of any the relationship.

But when understanding is continually refreshed by new empathy, connections are constantly re-knit, strengthening the fabric of the relationship.


* * *

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson, M.S., L.Ac., is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son, ages 16 and 19. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the first and second authors of Mother Nurture: A Motherís Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see their website at www.nurturemom.com or email them with questions or comments at info@nurturemom.com; unfortunately, a personal reply may not always be possible.


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