For the longest time, I perceived that empathy was the ability to feel what other people feel. In fact, my relationship with my wife, Julie, had reinforced this perspective. Julie is an empath. I, (Jeremy) am not.
Watching an intense movie or TV show is an interesting experience for me. Not only am I entertained, I also get to watch Julie experience the story like she is actually in the scene as part of the show. She literally feels what is happening in the scene. Coincidentally, we don’t watch intense shows and movies before bed. While I can power off the entertainment system and the show’s impact on me is gone before I get to the bedroom, Julie carries it with her for hours.
So, what’s your point, Jeremy? Well, for years, I assumed that since I didn’t have empathy, I couldn’t “empathize.” It finally hit me that I don’t need to have the trait of empathy to show compassion and see another person’s point of view.
This topic reminded me of the book, Verbal Judo by Dr. George Thompson. The basic message of this book is that we can learn to use our words to deescalate and influence if we choose to do so. We achieve this by empathizing with the other person. Thompson writes, “empathy has Latin and Greek roots: Em, from the Latin means ‘to see through’ and pathy, from the Greek means ‘the eye of the other.’ So, empathy means ‘to understand, to see through the eyes of another.’ To empathize with another person, I don’t necessarily need to feel what they feel, I just need to try to see a situation the way they see it. This is freeing and encouraging to me!
If we truly wish to see through, let’s say, the eyes of our spouse, we need to consider a few things:
1. We need to understand there is a time investment. In our fast-paced world, it can be challenging to slow down and have a conversation, let alone take the extra time to see another person’s perspective.
2. We must ask questions in a way that allows the other person to feel comfortable sharing how they see a situation. This invariably will lead to more questions. Here’s the hard part… We must formulate and ask our questions with an intent to understand, not with a desire to react or respond.
Further, we must resist the urge to make judgmental or defensive statements, especially if part of an answer is about us! Ugh, how many times have I failed at this…
3. Ask if we can restate the other person’s view back to them to ensure we understand. Once they’ve given permission, we relay back to them what we understand their view to be. If they correct us or add extra context, we should accept it as added clarity for our understanding and not get defensive.
It is likely they are not attacking us but are excited that we’re trying to understand their perspective. Therefore, they may offer more detail to help us.
As a concept, this might seem rather simple, but in practice, it can be challenging at first. I think we can agree that our spouses and marriages are worth the effort! Oh, and here’s a secret, this is effective in building and improving relationships with children and coworkers, too.
If you’re like me and don’t have empathy naturally, I encourage you to put these concepts to use in a tangible way. Think about a situation where you and your spouse, child, coworker, etc. just can’t seem to get on the same page.
Ask if they’d be willing to revisit the conversation again, explaining you’d simply like to understand their perspective. Go into the conversation knowing your intent is NOT to solve the issue, but to understand the other person’s perspective, EMPATHIZE.
This will likely remove some, or all, of the pressure you’d normally feel to win the person to your position. In the end, I believe you’ll find that your understanding of the other person, as well as the value they feel in the relationship, will significantly improve.
Lastly, if you’re married and these concepts were beneficial to you, I’d like to invite you to check out Re|engage on Monday evenings. This program digs into a lot of concepts like this to help you and your spouse flourish in your marriage!