We’ve all been there: a loved one or a partner is in high emotion, maybe attacking us, or withdrawing. We want connection and healing, but don’t know how to do so without making things worse.
This is where the magical tool of empathy comes into play.
The process of validating someone else’s feelings and experience as legitimate.
The best chance you have of getting someone on your side, to understand how you feel, and support you in getting what you want is to first do that with them. It’s the essence of the Golden Rule.
However, when we are frustrated or upset with someone, the last thing we want to do is to validate their perspective, experience, and emotions.
Empathy is one of the greatest and most challenging relational and spiritual skills, for that reason.
This is my empathy breakthrough story.
I had a girlfriend, and I did some things while we were apart that she labeled as betrayal. But, we had a weekend workshop planned together and so she picked me up from the airport anyway.
To start our 4 hour drive, she began with what a horrible man and boyfriend I was. How selfish I was. Ungrateful. Unkind. Stupid. You get the drift.
Instead of defending myself, attacking back, or retreating, which were my usual patterns, I decided to try something else. I had been studying nonviolent communication intensely for about 7 months by this time.
“It sounds like you are feeling really angry because you needed some security?”
“Damn right! And you go and did that and then I think you’ll leave and it drives me crazy!”
“I guess you were afraid as well because you needed security?”
“Of course I do! But really I just wanna cry when I think about it because I know you don’t care for me at all just like all the rest of the men in my life.”
“I imagine you might be feeling sad because you need love and you aren’t getting it?”
“Yes! And it’s your fault because I expected this to be different. Just pisses me off.”
“Sounds like you are angry because you need reliability?”
“No, it’s more that I’m sad because I hate this stupid pattern.”
The conversation continued like that for four hours. She would say something that sounded like an attack to anyone who would have been listening, and I rephrased it in terms of her feelings and unmet needs.
We spoke of all sorts of issues that went back to her childhood and had little to do with me. In fact, usually our upset has nothing to do with the person in front of us. They are a convenient context and safe valve to express the emotional pain that has been festering in us for decades. Our partner provides one small stimulus that triggers all of the past emotion.
Because they are in front of us and we feel something, we often blame them for our feelings. But they aren’t the problem. Which is why we say:
“The Feel is Real, but the Why is a Lie.”
Although it took hours to do this, by the time we arrived at our workshop she was perfectly happy and content. We felt connected and she felt understood. It was as if nothing had ever happened between us, and we had an enjoyable, pleasurable weekend together.
That was when I understood how powerful empathy can be.
During that experience, I never admitted that I was wrong or bad. I never had to take blame. I never had to experience shame. I never felt any guilt. I was simply curious, and reflecting her experience back to her. It was like talking to a mirror. And that was healing for her.
Every time I validated her expression, emotion, and experience it took another layer off the onion of all the emotions and pain she was carrying.
When people act violently toward us, they are just “tragically expressing an unmet need”.
This is the best formula I have found for expressing empathy:
- Translate whatever you hear into a feeling and need. It doesn’t matter what they say or how much they want to blame, shame, guilt, threaten, or punish you. You don’t make anyone feel anything ever. Don’t take that responsibility on. Instead:
- “Guess” both the feeling and the need back to them:
“I imagine/guess/wonder if you are feeling x [some variation of mad, glad, sad, afraid] because [human need] isn’t being met.”
In other words, you don’t tell them how they feel. You are asking a question and might be wrong. That’s ok. The fact that you tried shows that you care about their world, experience, and emotion. They will correct you if you get the feeling or need wrong. And then you both will know.
- Rinse and repeat, no matter what comes back.
This is a fairly simple process to describe.
It can be an incredibly challenging thing to do, in the heat of emotion, when you are both ‘triggered’. In fact, it may be wise to take space to give yourself some empathy (by doing this with yourself!) before attempting this process with another.
However, learning this process gives you much greater chances of getting your needs met by others than anything else I have found.
And, after the emotion has dissipated (you will notice a relaxation in their energy once they run out of emotional content), you can talk to them about what you want with a much higher chance of them listening and being agreeable to you, because you have listened to and shown empathy to them.
Talk to me.