Relationships can be tricky. Family relationships, friendships, work relationships, business partnerships . . .each category of relationships has its own unique challenges and rewards. In my line of work as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I find that the quality of an individual’s relationships determines the quality of their overall life. While it is true that healthy relationships require at least two willing participants who aim to bring positive things to the table, there are things that can be done by one willing individual to bring about positive change in a relationship where the other party may not be so willing.
One of the biggest emotional needs in each human heart (and mind) is the need to feel understood by and accepted by others. This is where the power of empathy comes in. Empathy, by dictionary definition, means “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Have you ever had a relational experience where someone who was important to you (a boss, spouse, friend, etc.) seemed like they totally “get you”? It feels good doesn’t it? When you are with someone who understands you, you feel more at ease and accepted. You have the power to make others in your life feel understood and accepted by you if you harness the power of empathy.
Some people are born with a natural ability to use empathy while others have a bit of work to do to learn this emotional and cognitive skill. It is ideal if we were taught the skill of empathy as children so that we grow up with the neural pathways of empathy laid down in the brain as a strong foundation. Not all of us were privileged to have parents capable of teaching us empathy and some of us were born with personalities that don’t employ empathy easily requiring us to have to really work to learn it.
One of the parenting techniques I teach parents is how to model and teach empathy to their children. When you have young children (starting as young as age 2) who have enough vocabulary to voice feelings and concepts, simply asking them to imagine how they think their playmate feels when they grab their toy away from them is helping them to learn empathy. When we teach them empathy, we teach them to use their imagination to put themselves into the place of their counterpart (playmate, sibling, etc.) so that they can get some insight about how their behavior is affecting the other.
As adults, we should use this same technique of using our imagination to step into someone else’s shoes (perspective). We should ask ourselves, “how would I feel if I were in his or her position?” or “how would I feel if I were looking at this interaction with their perspective?” We can employ the power of empathy to build good rapport in our relationships. When someone you are dealing with feels understood by you, it allows them to begin to drop some of their defensiveness. We can take it a step further by using empathy to bring us to a place of acceptance of the person and the person’s feelings even if we do not agree with them. When we are able to accept people even when we disagree with their views, perceptions, or feelings, we have reached a higher level of maturity and emotional health.
If you find yourself really struggling to have positive relationships with others, consider using empathy to frame how you speak with others. Use phrases like, “I can see how you would feel unappreciated when I don’t verbally acknowledge all that you do for me” or “I can understand how you could feel like I am taking advantage of you when I rarely help out around the house.” Don’t look down on someone else for being more “sensitive” than you or more “hard-nosed” than you. Use your imagination to understand that they have experienced completely different life wounds, triumphs, and personality development than you have experienced.
If you use empathy with and offer unconditional acceptance to the people with whom you interact, you will eventually see positive improvements in these relationships such as less conflict, more positive regard, less defensiveness, and more willingness to negotiate. Put the power of empathy to work in all your relationships and watch your personal happiness begin to climb as your relationships improve.
“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems. “ – Stephen Covey