This article was published in dr. rosiello's sedona times psychology column in 2008.
When a couple walks into my office for marital or couple counseling, one of the first issues that needs attention is helping them learn how to listen to each other.
In many cases, they just don’t understand each other’s meaning behind the words. For example, a female patient said she woke up the other day and asked her husband if he’d like to go out for breakfast. He wasn’t interested because he had a lot to do. My patient accepted this decision, initially, and then realized she had been angrily stomping around the bedroom. Finally, she spoke to her husband, saying she was upset he didn’t want to go out. He was surprised because he had actually thought she’d ‘asked’ him if he wanted to go out. “Why didn’t you just tell me you wanted to go out?” he said. “Well, what did you think I meant?” she responded. My patient wanted to spend time with her husband and go out for a meal and she felt rejected and abandoned by his answer. At this point, neither the husband nor the wife can understand what the other is saying.
How can couples avoid this sort of miscommunication? Well, certainly, speaking in a more direct manner would help, but many people don’t or can’t speak in a direct or open way. If you’re partnered with that sort of person, and many of us are, we have to work a bit harder to communicate. Her husband then went on to say, “Why don’t you just talk the way I do and say what you mean?” She answered, “If I spoke like you did, I’d be speaking like a guy and if that’s how you want me to speak, go marry a guy.”
Speaking in a direct way and saying what we mean isn’t gender specific, but for this patient, it feels uncomfortable and out of character for her. So, then how should her husband try to listen in a way that helps his wife? [Some readers might be muttering ‘why does the husband have to fix this situation?’ Well, somebody has to go first and in this situation, the wife is feeling vulnerable and rejected and is therefore less emotionally maneuverable.] So, here’s a solution: When you realize that your partner is being overly emotional to a relatively normal interaction, you might want to ask what they’re feeling instead of reacting in frustration. This is not easy to do, but it is rewarding in where the discussion will end up. The next step works like a charm: “Honey, did you feel like I didn’t want to be with you when I said I didn’t want to go out to eat?” This is empathy.
One of the reasons we have difficulty communicating with people we’re close to, is that we think about our own perspective and our own emotional experience of the communication. How, then, do we listen from a perspective other than our own? Here’s how: you’ve got to put yourself in their shoes. This is the beginning process of being empathic. I’m not suggesting that you try to think or figure out how you would feel if you were the other person. That’s not empathy; that’s sympathy. Sympathy is ‘thinking’ how another person is ‘feeling.’ It won’t work and it’ll frustrate your partner. There’s a subtle difference between sympathy and empathy, but it’s one that is a crucial to decipher.
Ever go to a funeral and have someone express sympathy by saying “I know your pain.” No they don’t. They don’t know what ‘you’ feel; they know what ‘they’ feel. To be empathic, you’ve got to momentarily ditch your own perspective. In therapeutic terms, it’s putting your own ego or narcissism (which we all have or we’d be dead) aside and putting someone else’s ego, first. You have to ask yourself, what is my partner wanting, what’s he/she trying to say, or trying to feel, or unable to communicate to me right now. We’re not born with the ability to be empathic; it’s learned. We learn it during our developmental years and if we haven’t learned it growing up, we’re usually in trouble in our relationships ever after. Can you learn it as an adult? Of course, but it takes a commitment to the notion that the other person’s feelings matter.
There was a famous psychoanalyst in Chicago during the 70s who came up with a way of using empathy that eventually changed how therapists listen to clients. He came up with it during a treatment with a female patient who became infuriated with him during every session. She kept telling him that he didn’t understand what she was feeling. He kept telling her that he did understand and he’d explain just what he understood. She’d say that he was wrong, once again. Finally, one day, during her session he responded, “You’re right. I don’t get it. You keep telling me I don’t get it and I should realize that you mean, ‘I don’t get it.’” The patient was thrilled. He’d heard her.
We all need empathy in order to develop emotionally and to have a sense of self-worth. For those people who don’t give empathy to others, it makes me wonder if they believe they can do without having it, themselves. Interestingly, it’s usually the person who doesn’t provide empathy to others, who typically makes the biggest demands for receiving it.
Being empathic means feeling what the other person feels. Think about his notion of empathy and how you can be emotionally closer to your loved ones if you use it. If you want a good relationship, empathy is a sure-fire way to achieve it.