Understanding Why You Need Empathy

As a marriage and family therapist, it isn’t uncommon to bear witness to the inner webs of conflict, arguments, relationship dissatisfaction and infidelity. Many couples begin the therapy process because they just can’t seem to communicate effectively. While there are many reasons that this occurs, one reason that is often brought up in relationship counseling is empathy. By definition, “Empathy is an active attempt to try to understand another person’s perspective” In the midst of our greatest conflicts, we often do not see another’s perspective. Beyond just seeing another’s perspective is “feeling” another’s perspective. An active attempt to do so often feels impossible. While this is certainly understandable, in order to truly understand our partner, feel satisfied in our relationship, feel connected to our children, or be able to engage in quality friendships, empathy is necessary.

em·pa·thy
noun
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Without going into great detail, our neurobiology gives us the ability to empathize with others in our relationships and outside lives. Mirror neurons literally copy what another person is doing. This is a basic explanation as to why we say that yawning is contagious. Our mirror neurons are telling us to yawn upon seeing someone else yawn. While this allows us to in a basic level feel what another is feeling, it is important to continue the process of stepping into another’s perspective. Humans are hard wired to be in relationship with others. It isn’t by accident that we spend much of our lives exploring the ups and downs of relationships, friendships, acquaintances or lovers. One of the keys to finding satisfaction in relationships with others is to find ways to empathize with those we love.

Here are four ways YOU can better understand empathy:

1. Thinking beyond yourself

On any given day how often do you find yourself thinking about someone else in a way that has no impact on you? How often do you wonder if there is something you could do for the greater world or someone else that wouldn’t give you pleasure? Let’s face it, it isn’t always enjoyable to be empathetic, and at times it may be downright confusing. But, in order to be truly emphatic you must think outside of yourself. And often it is important to do this and in some really difficult times, like when you are also feeling hurt, sadness, or anger. Those are the times that when we think beyond ourselves, and tune into our relationship needs that we provide something special to those we love. These are the moments that are ability to be empathic so greatly increases our relationship satisfaction.

2. Make eye contact

You know age-old adage, “the eyes are the window to a person’s soul”? Well it turns out it is kind of true. A sure fire way to connect with someone is to look at them in the eyes when they are talking. It allows you greater insight into their true emotions, allows you to also feel vulnerable as they are also looking into your eyes, and increases your overall connectedness. When we make eye contact we allow others to more actively see our truest emotions, triggering mirror neurons in our brains and engaging an active attempt of empathy.

3. Be curious

Coming from the perspective of a marriage and relationship therapist, the statement of, “always be curious”, is quite literally in my job description. It’s one of my greatest joys in working with clients. My ability to lean into curiosity allowing others to explore their growth is very rewarding. And while it comes natural to me, it may not always come so natural in a relationship. It is a very important step to engaging in empathy. When we are curious about the answer others are giving us, about their reason to be in the emotional state they are in, or simply curious as to what exactly it feels like to be in their shoes, we will jump on the empathy bandwagon.

4. Don’t try to solve the problem

What is one of the biggest complaints I hear from couples in their relationship struggles, “He/She/They just automatically try to make it better, they aren’t really listening” This is coming from a place of care and consideration; I won’t fault those that do this. But it also doesn’t help the process of empathy, albeit your relationship connectedness. If you want to truly improve your relationship satisfaction with your significant other, your kids, your friends, or anyone that is close to you, you must actively listen to their experiences. When we listen to another’s feelings, validate them and ensure that person that their feelings are normal and understandable, we have automatically placed ourselves in an empathetic situation. This will allow not only for increased positive dialogue, as well as increased understanding of each other’s needs, but overall grater relationship satisfaction.

Empathy is a window into experiencing others experiences. It allows us to be satisfied in our relationships, be kind to our children, be a better employee or boss, and bridge the gap between frustration and anger, to connectedness and love. If you find yourself caught in a situation that may lead to dissatisfying relationships in your life, consider implementing empathy and allowing your love to blossom.