4 Ways to Increase Empathy
Why Empathy is Important
Empathy is to marriage what oxygen is to air.
We need oxygen to live and it’s a critical part of the air that we breath. We also need empathy for our marriages to survive.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Romans 12:15 (NIV)
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Ephesians 4:2-3
God calls us to bind ourselves together in peace. This bonding is empathy.
Nick and Lauren wanted to have a great relationship. The talked about times when being together was easy and they enjoyed each other. Slowly, they have become less and less connected. More and more their fights end up with both of them taking opposite sides of an issue. Blame and accusations are common. Resentment and anger has built up over the last few years and now it seems like the slightest thing sets them off. Nick and Lauren are not happy with their marriage and they are wondering if there is any hope.
That pattern is one that I’ve heard over and over again. Misunderstanding increases over time and causes disconnection. Resentment and anger build up and cause a tension that can easily erupt. There is not much forgiveness or trust.
If a couple can increase empathy, they can build connection. We teach couples skills that can turn around these patterns. We teach skills like communication, conflict resolution and building connection. The thing that powers all of those skills is empathy.
Empathy is the ability to be able to see and feel things through someone else’s emotions and experiences. When we can understand and feel someone else’s experiences, it builds the relationship.
Empathy underlies validation, connection, effective listening and forgiveness. It builds compassion and a strong marriage bond.
How do you increase empathy? Here are four ways.
1. Effective Validation
We teach a skill called empathic communication. Did you get the “empathic” part? The point of validation is to be able to understand and to feel your partner’s thoughts and feelings.
Everett Worthington explains that there are three levels of empathy (as cited in Levenson and Ruef, 1992).
- Level 1: Understanding – You understand the point of view of the other person.
- Level 2: Emotional Identification – You feel with and think with the other person.
- Level 3: Compassionate Empathy – You feel compassion for the other person as well as emotional identification.
I like this breakdown. Often, we see couples that can parrot back their partner’s point of view, but they haven’t connected emotionally. Perhaps they have connected emotionally, but they don’t have compassion for their partner. Connecting at deeper levels helps to build the bond.
2. Understand Your Partner’s Past
We like couples to identify their emotional triggers and how they came about.
One of my emotional triggers was to withdraw into logic.
I grew up in a household that didn’t express much emotion. When I realized that and was able to explain that to my wife, it helped her to understand my withdrawal from her emotions. She started to have compassion on me when she understood how uncomfortable is was for me. I also had to realize that it was a challenge that I needed to work on.
I have since become more comfortable with her emotion.
When we understand our partners emotional triggers, it helps us both to manage how we respond and how we react. It produces compassion.
3. Use a Journal
When couples have built up a great deal of resentment and anger, forgiveness is always a step in the healing process.
When the hurt is deep, write it in a journal. Writing down thoughts and feelings can help people to process their hurt. Processing your hurt can lead you to compassionate empathy.
Compassionate empathy helps with the deeper hurts to move the person towards forgiveness.
Journaling helps to move you forward when you write about your feelings and your thoughts.
It is more effective when you focus on understanding the meaning of the incident rather than only focusing on the emotions (Ulrich and Lutgendorf, 2002).
4. Switch Sides
The goal of empathy is to experience the world from the other person’s feelings and thoughts. It doesn’t mean that you agree with their actions, but it can help to increase compassion.
So, how do you put yourself in their shoes? You can switch sides in your expression of thoughts and feelings.
For example, pick out a specific incident and write a letter to yourself from the perspective of your partner. I could write a letter from the perspective of my wife. I could include in it my wife’s thoughts, feelings and motivations.
Putting yourself into their perspective can be very healing. It’s true even if you don’t get actually get it right. It can help to see a specific incident through their eyes.
That perspective will build empathy.
Tips for Marriage Mentors:
- Teach Couples Validation Skills – Help couples to be able to validate their partners thoughts and feelings. Work on increasing your compassion by understanding their viewpoint.
- Help couples to understand their past – Understanding each other’s emotional triggers can go a long way to helping a couple to communicate in a way that their partner can understand.
- Suggest journaling – When a hurt is deep, suggest that they write down their thoughts and feelings. Particularly, work on understanding the meaning behind the hurt.
- Have them switch sides – In other words, have them work on understanding their partner’s thoughts and feelings. It might mean writing a letter from their partner’s perspective or pretending to speak from their partner’s perspective.
Worthington, E. L., & Worthington, E. L. (2003). Forgiving and reconciling: bridges to wholeness and hope. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 96.
Levenson, R. W., & Ruef, A. M. (1992). Empathy: A physiological substrate. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(2), 234-246. doi:10.1037//0022-35184.108.40.206
Ullrich, P. M., & Lutgendorf, S. K. (2002). Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24(3), 244-250. doi:10.1207/s15324796abm2403_10