I have a unique vantage point as a counselor that many never get to see. I get to take a step back and “see the forest for the trees” whenever I’m dealing with a couple in crisis. The couple probably came to me because they feel like they are on different wavelengths and the frustration is building to the point of a melt-down. When I stand back, often I see multiple problems, but none is bigger than the inability to feel empathy in the relationship.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to come alongside someone, and not only see a person’s point of view, but also experience the other person’s pain. You go beyond feeling sorry for that person, since that would be sympathy. And go deeper, seeking to understand that person’s pain until you are able to feel the hurt, which in turn should move you to a comforting response.
What Does Empathy Do?
Empathy soothes. Empathy heals. Empathy fills the gap. In fact, I think empathy is like the “Super Glue” of distant and hurting relationships. It can pull you tightly to your partner and keep you together in all kinds of trouble.
How Do You Develop Empathy?
There are seven ways, among many, to develop empathy. I hand picked these, because I feel they are among the best strategies. And to help you remember them, the methods are an acrostic for – INSIGHT.
Imagine – Use your imagination in several ways to your advantage.
- One way is to imagine yourself in that person’s situation. Really take time to think through how you would feel if you were in that person’s shoes—especially regarding the pain they are experiencing.
- Another way is to imagine the person as a child. If you have photos of the person as a child, use them to help you visualize. Often when we consider the person in the vulnerable stage of childhood, our defenses tend to lower and lessen.
Nurture the Relationship
Make a point to regularly practice caring behaviors with this person. When you act lovingly toward someone, it actually increases your feelings of love, as well as, your ability to empathize with that person.
Set Aside Your Beliefs, Concerns and Personal Agenda
When you are dealing directly with this person, you have to go into the conversation empty handed—with no personal expectations or goal of fixing them. Very often couples come at each other with baggage from their past or presuppositions that muddy the communication waters. Instead, you must be willing and eager to have your mind and perspective changed. Your only agenda is listening to your partner’s feelings and trying to understand your partner’s point of view.
Identify with Their Experiences
When the other person begins to share, focus on the feelings and situations that you’ve experienced in the past that are similar. This will deepen your emotional insight into the other person’s plight.
Gain Personal Perspective
This method involves working on your personal identity. In other words, you need to learn who you are separate from the other person. If you do not have a clear sense of identity, then you can become “enmeshed” (emotionally entangled and dependent upon the other person) and will tend to take things too personally. When you take things personally, you cannot separate yourself enough to feel the other person’s pain. Begin to practice emotionally detaching—not allowing the other person’s negative behavior to determine your mood or choices. In time, you will gain a greater sense of identity and separateness that will offer you the advantage of perspective.
Heal Past Hurts
If you don’t heal past hurts, you will be like a walking wound and anyone who brushes up against you will send shock waves of anger and pain through your body. This anger keeps you from seeing the other person’s feelings. Instead, you become self-absorbed with your own pain. If you find ways to resolve your hurts, you can turn your focus off of yourself and clearly see your partner’s pain.
Turn to God
As humans, our ability to empathize is extremely limited without God’s help. We may try to empathize based on sheer will-power, but when the heat is on or the situation endures, our empathy quickly evaporates. That’s why it is essential to turn to God, because He gives us the mercy, compassion and grace that are necessary to develop empathy. It’s as if our empathy cup never runs dry, when God is the One pouring His abundant compassion into our hearts.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NIV)