There are some spectacular winter storms on west coast of Vancouver Island, open to the full force of the Pacific Ocean. Occasionally, you can see a boat limp back to port after a big storm.
Similarly, one of the most important functions of an intimate relationship is to provide safe harbour from life’s storms; this happens only if empathy is present.
Do you offer advice or suggestions, do you dismiss their concerns?
Just as ships expect a harbour to provide shelter, most people are looking to be heard and comforted when talking about something distressful. The ability to hear your partner’s pain can be difficult if you are not comfortable with all emotions.
Many people have learned to deal with negative emotions the Obi-Wan way: “Bury your feelings …, they do you credit but could be [used against you]” (The Empire Strikes Back). Emotional dismissiveness happens when you distract, ignore, or try to fix your partner’s feelings.
Consider this exchange: A: “My boss yelled at me this morning…” B: “Hey, look on the bright side, you’ve got a great job. And you were late. You know, if you just set your alarm clock earlier…” Even “positive suggestions” can be emotionally dismissive. The problem with dismissing emotions, however, is that this does not make them go away. Your partner is now even more frustrated—upset by the original issue and hurt because their feelings were dismissed. Empathy is a much better way to respond to emotional distress.
Empathy is an emotionally connective act. It enables us to express our feelings, and this in turn allows us to gain understanding and control over them. Negative emotions are experienced with the right side of the brain. When we verbalize feelings, identifying their individual nuances, the active area of the brain changes to the left side, to the centres of cognition, communication and understanding. Empathy is also beneficial to relationships because it increases trust and deepens connection. Emotionally you are affirmed that your partner is there for you.
Thoughts on Listening with Empathy:
1. Empathy Precedes Problem-Solving
When your partner describes something distressful, set aside solutions and listen. If you need to respond, you can say: “Tell me more about that.”
2. Listen to Understand
Often, we listen to respond, taking notes, ready to disagree, judge, or give advice. Instead, listen to understand. Ask yourself, “What’s going on for my partner right now?”
3. Stay with the Emotion
Empathy occurs at the point where we identify a similar feeling (or knowledge that we have never experienced that feeling) in ourselves and express gentle, considerate support based on our partner’s needs: “That sounds like a huge load to carry. I am all ears.”
4. Avoid Anecdotes
Don’t describe your own experience; this detracts from your partner’s ability to feel heard (“Let me tell you about the time that happened to me”).
5. Don’t Take it Personally
That your partner is upset does not mean you have failed as a partner. Nor is this a cue for giving advice. Offering empathy is an extremely powerful act (Carl Rogers) and shows you are supportive.
You do not have to agree with your partner (and this is not the time to express disagreement), but you do agree that they feel the way they do. Expressing this understanding is empathy in action.
7. If Unsure, Ask
If you feel more is needed, ask: “Can you tell me what you need right now?”
Providing empathy is difficult when your partner’s issues are about you, but the same principles apply. Additionally, your partner would need to describe their feelings and experience rather than commenting about what you are doing wrong.
Empathy comes from the Greek word for feelings and emotions, empatheia; it is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. Empathy conveys deep respect and trust; trust that the relationship is a safe place to share emotions, respect to find your own solutions (or to wait until asked for advice). Empathy occurs when you provide a safe place for your partner to express how they feel and they do, gaining relief. Bob Dylan had it right; sometimes we just need shelter from the storm.