Why Empathy Is the Golden Rule of Couples Communication



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It would just seem common sense that you have to first emotionally connect with your partner if they’re to hear you the way you want. Yet if you’re like most people, you respond to them differently—especially if they’re voicing a frustration: Either by immediately offering them words of reassurance or consolation. Or (what you imagine, at least) is good practical advice, or constructive criticism. Or—generally a male’s default position—initiating a process of problem-solving, endeavoring to help them fix what’s wrong.

And if so, you’re likely surprised—maybe irritated or frustrated yourself—when your (supposedly) positive reaction doesn’t have the effect you intended.

As I emphatically coach the individuals and couples I work with, “Empathy first!” And that’s a maxim I suggest they commit to memory before verbally engaging with their partner. If there’s a single internal catchphrase that almost guarantees a dialogue will begin favorably—and almost regardless of the topic discussed—I’ve learned from over 35,000 hours of hands-on clinical experience that this simple “self-talk” slogan works best. (And, by the way, it’s also optimal with children—as in, “connection before correction.”)

Not that starting out with heartfelt words of understanding and compassion will always work. There are times when, literally, nothing can. But, particularly in troubling or thorny situations, where the startup is likely to determine the outcome, there’s no safer way to open a discussion than seeking to genuinely “participate” in your partner’s state of mind and emotion. And this is most effectively accomplished through accurately identifying with their feelings—whether they’ve been overtly stated or implied by language, facial expression, and tone of voice. However, the reason that vicariously entering into your partner’s subjective reality can sometimes be quite challenging is that in any individual instance their reactions may be quite dissimilar from your own.

In the past, I published a piece demonstrating that feeling understood was in some ways actually more important than feeling loved. So when your partner experiences you’re sincerely making the effort to grasp where they’re coming from, odds of their being more receptive to where you’re coming from is greatly enhanced. Further, when you can’t discern their subjective reality, offering empathy needs to be done tentatively. As in, “The expression on your face right now makes me think that what I said struck you the wrong way. Did it make you feel hurt [angry? sad? confused? misunderstood? etc.]? . . . What are you feeling now?”

It can hardly be overemphasized that this powerful “prelude” to talking about challenging subjects with your partner doesn’t relate just to altering the course of a conflict. It’s also ideal for situations where your sole objective is to console your partner when they’re confiding in you some deeply felt inadequacy or failure that’s distressing them.

For instance, let’s say in interviewing for a position your partner coveted, they accidentally put their foot in their mouth. And now, certain that they blew it, they can’t stop beating themselves up. If you start out by saying: “Well, don’t forget, there’s been times when you did really well in an interview,” they’re probably not going to experience much comfort. They’re a lot more likely to feel you’re not in sync with them, maybe even invalidating them. For you’re doing nothing to emotionally identify the nature, or extent, of their disturbance—and by doing so, “joining” them. What they need is for you to recognize their discouraged, disconcerted feelings (whether they be embarrassment, failure, shame, humiliation, or anything else).

But if, instead, you were to say something like: “I can only imagine how terrible you must feel right now. It has to be awful to have all these second thoughts about how you could have presented yourself better, or said something differently. It must be sheer torture not to be able to stop obsessing about the whole thing—so hard to get over it, ’cause I know how much getting that position meant to you.”

Only then might you add: “All I can say is that in the past you’ve shared times when you did really well in an interview. Maybe when you’re ready, we can look at what went wrong this time, so we can get a better sense of how you might prepare differently in the future. I know I’ve messed up myself in being interviewed when I got so nervous I couldn’t think straight, or I didn’t get myself properly ‘psyched’ for it.”

Note how much more thoughtful—and “involved”—this alternative, more elaborate response sounds. How it communicates more connection, caring, and concern. On the contrary, if you immediately responded by taking a stance of (rather glib) reassurance, or making problem-solving suggestions, or—worse of all—critically sitting in judgment on your partner’s sub-par performance, these admittedly more common responses would do little, if anything, to help heal the psychological wound your partner may still be bleeding from.

Here’s another example:

Say, your partner confesses: “It really makes me disgusted with myself that I’m so bad at saying what I mean. So many times my words just don’t come out the way I want them to.” And in return you respond: “Well, yeah, but look at how good you are at fixing problems on the computer that make me crazy!”

Is that really the best thing you could say to help them feel caringly understood? . . . Doubtful.

But what if you said: “Yeah, that ‘s got to be really frustrating—and I’d guess pretty embarrassing, too, when you know what you want to say, but what comes out of your mouth just doesn’t fit what was in your head. And then I can’t help but reply to you as though you said something else. And you end up feeling really frustrated with yourself, ’cause it hits you that what you said wasn’t what you meant. . . . Is that something like how it feels to you?”

Is it not obvious that first “meeting” your partner where they are lays the emotional groundwork for any comforting message you might wish to convey? that anything reassuring you might say will register a lot deeper once you’ve vicariously reflected their upset back to them—effectively “united” yourself with them?

In a sense, this is what a loving companionship is all about, what’s absolutely essential to creating the relationship you desire. And it’s largely absent any criticism or evaluation. Sure, if you’re skilled at it, there may be all kinds of constructive comments, or feedback, you can provide that your partner will appreciate. But in most instances it’s not that productive, and may even be harmful, to start out with them. Unquestionably, there’s a time for suggestions and solutions. But in general what needs to come first is making your mate feel heard, making them feel you truly “get” where they’re coming from—both what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling.

All the same, as effective as an initial empathic response to your partner usually works, it’s not easy to do—especially in situations where your buttons have been pushed. For then, either you’re not at all inclined to respond this way, or you simply haven’t developed the communication expertise to do so. If what I’ve described were easy to do, undoubtedly a lot more people would be doing it. But frankly, precious few of us have the awareness, or the emotional strength and resilience, to respond this way. Given human nature, it just doesn’t come naturally to us.

So, if you’re to develop this invaluable communication skill—and attitude—expect it to take substantial practice . . . and self-discipline. Until, that is, it becomes a habit. For a while, though, you may have to pause and take a deep breath to free yourself of what, impulsively, you’re much more “programmed” to do.

But if you’re willing to make this effort, you may be amazed at how your relationship can transform: How much closer you can feel toward one another, and how much more intimate your union can become.

NOTE: Earlier relationship posts of mine that closely complement this one include: “Feeling Understood—Even More Important Than Feeling Loved?”, “One Marriage = Two Realities,” “Every Couples’ Key to Peace,” and “Loving vs. Judging: How to Keep Your Romance Alive.”

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.



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