Ground Rules for Empathy

Couples Therapy Sterling VA

As an early step in almost every couples therapy process, I spend time talking with my clients about how to effectively communicate empathy. The vast majority of couples come into therapy with the goal of improving communication, but many have a hard time articulating exactly what it is about the way they communicate that isn’t working. A few complaints I hear often:

  • We have the same fight over and over
  • S/he just doesn’t get me anymore
  • I don’t even bring up problems because I know the conversation isn’t going to go anywhere
  • We seem to be speaking different languages

From my perspective, empathy is giving the message, “I understand how you feel, and it matters to me.” To achieve this, we have to slow down our communication process enough that there is space for each partner’s emotional experience to be fully articulated, without the other person responding with their own feelings or reasons why feelings shouldn’t be what they are. It also means that we have to be able to separate the emotional from the logical — feelings aren’t logical, and as soon as you start trying to make sense of why your partner feels something or thinking about why they shouldn’t feel that way, you’re off in the ditch in a way that makes recovery pretty tough.

The other piece that is really important in conveying empathy effectively is managing all of the nonverbal components of communication. Things like tone of voice, body positioning, eye contact, and physical touch are all incredibly powerful. Tone of voice is pretty obvious, but think about the other items on that list in the context of your own emotionally-laden conversations. Are you close to each other, or standing on opposite sides of the room? Are you holding your body in a way that is open or approachable, or are you standing with your arms crossed or waving your arms wildly as you yell? Are you looking at each other as you speak, or does one partner have their back turned to the other? Are you touching each other in loving ways, or is the conflict so intense that touch doesn’t feel safe?

Paying some close attention to the way we communicate when we are feeling something significant can pay off in spades if it increases understanding and connection in your relationship. So, here are my “ground rules” for empathy in couple relationships:

  1. If you’re angry, you’re not ready to talk. In order for empathy to be achieved, both partners have to be willing to communicate about vulnerable emotions — not anger. The natural response to anger is defensiveness, and this type of interaction will set off a toxic pattern that is virtually guaranteed NOT to include empathy. If you try to articulate how you feel and the only words coming to mind are anger, frustration, irritation, etc. — you are really better off taking some time to collect your thoughts and reconvening when you’re in a softer space.
  2. One person’s feelings at a time. When one partner is talking about an emotion, that has to be the sole focus of the conversation until that person feels understood. Imagine I tell my husband that I’m feeling overwhelmed by a tough day with our two-year-old and he responds by saying, “I know, he was such a handful yesterday, I barely made it through the afternoon!” The effect is likely going to be that some of our attention turns to how he feels, rather than allowing me to feel fully understood. Everyone gets a turn to be understood, but it has to be one at a time.
  3. Go into the conversation with the goal of understanding, not being understood. It’s pretty typical in couple dynamics that both partners come in to big conversations with the goal of getting their point across to the other person. If we can flip this dynamic on its head and instead approach each other seeking to understand, the atmosphere becomes a lot more welcoming and collaborative. Convey to your partner that you truly want to listen, rather than racing to speak.
  4. Put aside other tasks. Though it can sometimes work, it’s usually best not to have big emotional conversations while trying to complete other tasks. Instead, focus 100% of your attention on each other and understanding how your partner is feeling.
  5. Avoid blaming language — especially “you”. One of the most important things that must occur in order for true empathy to be achieved is that defensiveness does not enter the conversation. You can do a lot to prevent this by steering clear of blaming language, especially using the word “you”. For example, if I say to my husband, “I feel lonely when I spend so many nights home by myself. I miss being together during that time,” I’m likely to get a far better response than if I say, “I feel lonely because you’ve been working late so much.”
  6. Stay connected. Even if you’re having a tough conversation about big feelings, try to maintain a connection with each other. There may be a difficult challenge in front of you, but that challenge does not have to define your relationship. You can achieve this by holding hands or touching in another loving way as you speak to each other. Another important point: if a disagreement doesn’t get resolved before bed (which is OK!), it’s best to still end the night going to bed together, kissing each other goodnight, and saying “I love you.” This affirms that unshakeable underlying connection that persists even when you’re in conflict.

What other ways have you found to increase the likelihood of achieving empathy with your partner? Let us know in the comments.

Lindsey M. Hoskins, PhD, LCMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both our Bethesda and Sterling offices. Call 703-951-6409 or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.