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Empathy: Magic for Relationships

Empathy is essentially an act of imagination: you are not imagining yourself in another person’s position; you are imagining the other person in their position.

Empathy – I am attempting to understand your feelings in this context. “You feel isolated and lonely sometimes?” or “You love Alex?” (Feelings are single words.)

The following list of responses are not empathy. They are often less helpful although they are well intentioned.

  • Sympathy and Comforting – I am here for you: “Oh my God, you poor thing!” (tears, touching, hugging).
  • Normalising You are normal, not stupid or mad: “Anyone, including me would have felt/done that.” or “Jean and Frank felt exactly the same.”
  • Identifying I accompany you because I’m the same: “I can identify with that” or “I know just how you feel”.
  • Fixing It’s not a problem anymore so calm down: “Let me do that for you.” or “We’ll get a another dog.” or “Just leave her/him!”
  • ExplainingI can explain your feelings so its OK: “Its because your brother bullied you that you feel that way.”
  • JudgingI know that you are good(or bad): “You are so brilliant(stupid)”

Empathy attempts the impossible – to understand the full complexity of feelings that the circumstances bring about in a person who is different from you. Empathy allows you to be touched but not swamped by feelings; you remain objective, imaginative, calm and curious.

With empathy your imagined version of the other person’s experience constantly changes. So in dialogue the feelings you imagine must be frequently checked either by guessing or repeating back: “You said, when he shouted you felt frozen and numb?”  “So now you feel stupid that you got so angry?” Getting it wrong is ok; it’s the trying that matters.

Familiarity blocks empathic curiosity. Our partners tend to repeat themselves; this may hit your trigger buttons – irritation, boredom or impatience. Yet it is arrogant to assume that you already know and understand. Your partner needs you to show you understand what its like on this particular day, right now. Even if they have told you about this thing before.

It is an act of love to suppress your other responses (see above); to put your triggers aside, to sincerely engage with curiosity, acceptance and imagination.

Empathy is magic. Simply being listened to and having your feelings understood often does for us everything that other responses aim at. Empathy can comfort, normalise, accompany and fix. Try it!

You might also like:
Intentional Dialogue,

With thanks to The Neuroscience of Human Relationships by L Cozolino,
Carl Rogers and Person Centred Therapy,
Getting the Love You want by H Hendrix
To Lead and Honourable Life by J Shlien.

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