Empathy – and why it matters
Empathy matters because without it we are rudderless.
The use of empathy allows us to be “near the knowledge another person holds to be true.” It may not be true, it may not even be relevant to the issue at hand… but it is meaningful to the other person and that is what counts here.
Sometimes when people tell us how they feel they are not really sure how they feel. “I am pissed off that you are always coming home late,” may be an expression of “I am unhappy with our marriage and it is your fault (now I’ll blame you because I can’t bear the thought of being the person at fault) because you are always coming home late.”
Hearing the former and “empathising” with the speaker leads us to a position where we can begin to have some understanding that our partner is angry and unhappy.
A helpful response might be: “That is really annoying for you and you are finding it hard to deal with that feeling.”
“Yes you bastard, why are you always late????!!!!…..”
Well it takes two to tango and both people have to have “empathy” for the other persons position or it will end up as an argument.
One practical step I ask couples to do is sit down for 10 minute, taking in turns talking about how they feel… with the listening partner ONLY RESPONDING EMPATHICALLY.
After a series of:
“Oh, that must be hard for you!”
“Sounds like you are really pissed off!”
“You are really angry and I have some understanding of how you feel!”
“etc, etc ,etc.” … the couple come back and tell me they start laughing. I think it becomes at the same time ridiculous and meaningful.
Ridiculous because it is obvious they are “in tune” and probably have been for years but circumstances have got in the way of their each knowing this… and meaningful to realise their partner, with whom they originally fell in love with, has still got a sense of them. They have a sense of each other that is is unspoken and unspeakable- unutterable. It is just there… this is empathy in action.
But it is no laughing matter because I Believe the encouraging of an empathic response to our partner when they are feeling bad can lead to a better connection. And communicating how you feel, how I feel only works if we are open to the other person’s feelings.
If we do not have empathy we might as well be on our own. Actually, that is usually what happens because we end up never trusting anyone and always feeling other people can never understand us.
The rudder of our being “with” people is empathy.