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Improving Relationships with Empathy and Understanding

Improving Relationships with Empathy and Understanding

In my work as a fatherhood program facilitator, I teach weekly parenting classes on various topics. One of my favorite topics is empathy. Over the years, I have found a handful of foundational skills that support our ability to have happy, healthy relationships with our children and partners. Empathy is one of my favorite skills to teach because it impacts so many areas of our lives. Our ability to understand and share the feelings of another increases our likelihood of being kind, considerate, and cooperative. These are basic necessities of a happy relationship.

If you don’t understand me, if you don’t feel me, then you ain’t real
In my eyes, and that’s all that count to me?
Lil Wayne – Feel Me

Lil Wayne tests the people around him for their ability to empathize. Based on this song, it seems like he requires empathy in order to have a relationship with him. If you can’t feel me (understand me), you are not real (someone I can trust).

We all want empathy from our loved ones. Children may not know what empathy is, but they want it to. My oldest Son was a fussy baby, often crying in my arms for long periods of time. No matter what I tried, it seemed like there was nothing I could do to make him comfortable. Desperate, I looked him in his eyes and asked him, “What do you want?” The moment I stared into his eyes, and he stared back into mine, he began to calm down. At that moment, my Son did not need to be fed or changed; he wasn’t gassy either. My Son wanted to feel me and know I was real. He needed to feel the love I had for him to feel secure. He wanted empathy.

Sometimes empathy comes naturally, like the moment with my Son; other times, it takes an intentional effort to empathize with another; some find it challenging to empathize at all. The good news is that empathy is a skill we can learn, just like reading and writing. Of course, some will be better at it than others, but we can all learn to do it.

Empathy indeed means feeling what another feels, but researchers have identified two distinct ways we can use empathy to understand others.

  1.  Other-oriented empathy is imagining the other person’s perspective and reading their emotions to gain a greater general understanding.
  2.  Self-oriented empathy is imaging yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Self-oriented empathy is likely what you thought of when you read the title of this article. It is an excellent way to understand someone’s emotions, but it can be draining and lead to boundary issues. You do not want to internalize everyone’s feelings. I am not discouraging putting yourself in someone else’s shoes; instead, I am presenting an alternative to allow you to practice empathy more often with the people in your life. With other-oriented empathy, we don’t have to walk a mile in everyone’s shoes; we just imagine what it would be like and read the emotions of the wearer of those shoes.

Using Empathy to Improve Relationships

One afternoon I received a call from my ex-wife. She was outraged and yelling at me about a diaper rash that my one-year-old daughter had developed during her weekend with me. Having recently learned about empathy and how to use it more effectively to communicate, I realized this highly emotional conflict was an opportunity to repair and rebuild our relationship. I was actually kind of excited to try my empathy skills during live combat. When I used self-oriented empathy, I felt what she felt, but I also immediately judged her for yelling at me because I wouldn’t be that upset over a diaper rash. I started off imagining how my ex felt, then quickly turned my focus to how I would behave differently in this situation; this is an example of the boundary issues that can arise when using self-oriented empathy. When I used other-oriented empathy, I avoided that judgment because the focus remained on how she was feeling. I was able to reach a deeper understanding of why she felt so angry by imagining what her perspective was. She must think my daughter developed a diaper rash because I let her sit in a wet diaper all day. She is angry because she thinks I was neglecting our daughter. Using other-oriented empathy, I kept my focus on her experience, and we reached a satisfactory solution to the diaper rash problem.

Now let’s revisit Lil Wayne’s words to see if I pass his empathy test.

Does my ex-wife feel understood at this moment?

Yes, using empathy and the technique I described in this video, I was able to demonstrate I understood her.

Was I a real one (someone she could trust)?

Yes, after our conversation, she knew it was important to me that our daughter be rash-free, and we came up with a plan for how we could avoid rashes in the future.

Empathy is like any other skill; it may be difficult when you first attempt it. You may become frustrated and discouraged as you fumble your way through your first reps, but like other skills, they become a little easier with each repetition and natural once you’ve mastered it.

Blog Writer: Chris White

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