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Why practice empathy in relationships?
Practising empathy is the key to building trust and rapport in a relationship. It helps you to reach out to others, showing you’re willing to collaborate and develop a mutual understanding. This means people can see you have their interests at heart as well as your own. You can see things from their point of view and not just focussed on being self-centred. It shows the importance of having shared goals and common ground between you. Empathy indicates a sense of compromise and partnership from both people, but not to the extent of sacrificing personal freedom or independence. Sometimes it can mean a willingness on both sides to agree, to disagree while still maintaining good relations. It also brings dividends for you personally – because when people feel understood and taken into account, they’re much more inclined to return the favour. That’s why empathy is vital in building bonds of openness and trust.
But what is empathy?
It’s not simply the ability to step into someone else’s shoes or see the world from their point of view. It’s the ability to imagine how someone else feels – having a sense of their needs, passions and motivations. What makes them tick? Empathy is usually conveyed non-verbally in your tone of voice, your body posture, eye-contact, facial expressions and gestures. All of which should leave a person feeling included in your concerns; not judged, excluded or exploited to meet your own ends. Empathy is much more effective in non-verbal communication, as it’s a form of emotional mirroring that puts people at theri ease.
What’s in it for them?
Rather than being in a state of continuous conflict over resources, human beings have learned to cooperate as social animals. Most of us are hard-wired with empathy and compassion, so we can care for the young, old and vulnerable. Without empathy there would be no parent-child attachment and our care-givers would simply act as providers, without showing any affection, love, care or attention. We need empathy to form lasting relationships, to care for others when they cannot cope alone and to motivate social interaction through mutually satisfying interactions. So when we feel empathy for others, they feel loved and needed in return. They feel cared for. And this is what improves their confidence and self-esteem; so that they can form bonds and learn to operate in partnership. Meaning they’re able to reach out to others for support when they need it.
What’s in it for me?
Without showing empathy to others we’d be highly unlikely to get our own needs met in return. We would lose our place in a family group and most likely find ourselves excluded. However, when we show empathy to others, they’re much more likely to develop trust and include us in their affairs. They’re more likely to rely on our shared interests, mutual transactions and agreements as a way of collaborating in the world. This means we’re less likely to be isolated or fend for ourselves. Empathy even benefits us in competition with our rivals, since we’re less likely to break out in conflict – or mutually assured destruction, as the phrase goes.
How is empathy practised?
Listen and observe – by genuinely being open enough to listen and observe others, we get a sense of common ground. We understand them, and feel less defensive. So practice listening to others attentively, in a non-judgemental, non-defensive manner that shows you’re willing to learn from them, despite your differences. Be interested and attentive to what they’re saying and doing. Ask questions, be curious, reflect back what you have heard and offer constructive feedback, not your advice or fixing others, as if you know best. Instead, as you listen to them, imagine how you would feel in their position and try to acknowledge what they're going through.
Attune to their feelings and emotions – try to pick up on other people’s feelings and physical sensations. Or develop a radar for attuning to their emotional states by observing their facial expressions, listening to their tone of voice and understanding your own impact on their feelings. This is often referred to as intuition, but it is not magic and we cannot form absolute assumptions based on this. However, we do have mirror neurones in our pre-fontal cortex at the front of our brains which can help us become more aware of others. Rather than try to analyse people or over-think what they are feeling by making assumptions, or interpreting the meaning of their behaviour, practise this kind of empathy by interacting, observing and checking in with the other person to see if you have. Use observable data - such as their patterns of behaviour, gestures, words, voices and way of relating to you.
Using your body is vital – most of us have been blessed with five senses. We need to use our bodies a bit like a tuning fork, which we use unconsciously to detect subtle variations of mood and emotion. We even use our own internal physical sensations as receptors to certain stimuli from people in close proximity. We use our eyes and ears to pick up on emotional stimuli, like facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. We can also pick up on subtle chemical notes from others which is detected by our sense of taste and smell to know if someone is feeling fearful, excited, aroused, ill or even depressed. We use our soma (sensory-somatic nervous system) to pick up on subtle vibrations from someone when they are in the near vicinity, observing at an unconscious level whether they are fully present, detached or mirroring our emotional states. You only have to practice this in the company of others, through your non-verbal interactions. Allow yourself to experiment sin a silent and reflective state with someone your trust. Afterwards, suggest what you may have picked up and see if this resonates with them. The same is also true of what we express to others with our bodily gestures, facial expressions and eye-contact. Try to develop some sense of awareness of how your physical presence and interactions affect others emotional states.
Show you genuinely see things from their point of view - in any conversation or interaction with someone you care about try to let the other person know you have some sense of how they see the world. Let them know that while you don't have to agree on every issue you share the same set of values, ethics and beliefs. This can be practised in the midst of a disagreement or argument, where you let the person know that while you may hold different positions over a particular issue, you only want to make them aware of something and you do not want to impose your views on them or attack them for being different. When you are speaking to others try to imagine how it will serve the interests of both of you in the relationship, not just your own needs. It's the relationship that needs to benefit and remain intact, rather than anyone winning or losing the argument. Try not to use judgemental language or be too critical of another person. Encourage conversation that seeks to embrace your differences as a strength in the relationship. You can see your differences either as polar opposites or somehow complimentary to one another. Do not knowingly attack your partner or their point of view, in order to beat them into submission. Instead offer your point of view as an alternative version of the truth, not the right one. There is no right or wrong in relationships whatever you believe - because each person has their own experience and the right to express their own point of view.
Acknowledge the validity of their feelings - even if you disagree on something you do not lose anything by acknowledging the validity of other peoples feelings. Feelings are not right or wrong. They are emotional responses to the world. Although we need to express our feelings in a way that other people can hear and accept what we have to say; we do not have to remain silent, bite our lip or keep the peace for the sake of maintaining the status quo. Sometimes we are going to upset others, let them down or disappoint them, but we can still show our understanding of how this might make them feel.
Be Inclusive - try to show that you have taken your partners feelings and opinions into account. Reflect back the feelings, paraphrase their words or clarify what they have said to show you are paying attention before your agree or disagree. This allows for a much more inclusive and collaborative atmosphere. It also shows that whatever you are doing or saying that upsets them, it is not a personal attack. Also allow for consultation and negotiating the boundaries of any relationship. One person does not have the right to set the rules while the other conforms. This is controlling and unjust. In the end it will be resented by the other person.
On behalf of the relationship – whenever you discuss issues that are causing concern in the relationship, or even when you are arguing, try to focus on how the relationship will benefit. The relationship needs to work for both of you as well as your individual needs. This way there are no winners or losers. You may each ask for something you want from your partner or the other person, but if you want to create empathy between you, whatever you ask for needs to be of mutual benefit to both parties. Practise asking what the other person wants from you in return, or how they can meet your request without feeling it comes at a cost.
Watch out for the trigger points – in a long-term relationship most couples or partners learn a great deal about their ingrained patterns of behaviour and which buttons to press. These repetitive cycles of conflict become a habitual performance, where each person takes a role, acts according to expectation and each person triggers the other person’s emotions and feelings. It becomes a merry-go-round that no-one can stop or step off. Practice making a mutual agreement about how to deal with disagreements or conflict with a set of reasonable boundaries that benefits both parties. Do this when you are in a relatively secure place and whenever you feel close to regressing to the old way of button pushing refer to that agreement and try to act accordingly, rather than let things spin out of control.
Always make an effort to repair the rift between you - try not to sleep on an argument or freeze each other out as a punishment. It’s vital that even if you remain in disagreement or the matter remains unresolved you are able to repair after a heated discussion or argument. This does not mean you leave the matter as unfinished business or allow someone to abuse or take advantage of you. Only that if the disagreement has not yet been resolved or descended into all-out conflict, then you still need to find a way of showing empathy and trust. Without it you will not be able to resolve problems. Practice repairing rifts without having to prove who was right or wrong and if you can acknowledge the difficulties for both parties.
As an experienced counsellor in Whitton, at EnduringMind, I help couples learn how to practice improving communication, empathy, compassion and trust in relationships. Email or call me at Whitton counselling.