The Experience of Another

Posted on October 15, 2012

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It is the most natural thing in the world to see things from our own perspective.  Ours are the eyes we look through.  Mine are the emotions and thoughts that I experience directly.  Relationships require more of us.  Empathy is the ability to enter someone else’s experience, to be able to see life from another’s perspective, and to communicate that understanding.  Empathy asks something of us that does not come naturally, to set aside my experience and to enter yours.  It is also an honor when another person gives you a view to his or her experience.  The inner world of another should be treated with the tenderness and reverence such an honor deserves.

For reasons of confidentiality, I can’t write the details of most of the interactions that inspire my blog posts.  This one is about me so I can put it all out there.  One might expect that a man who enters the experience of others for a living would be able to get this right.  I don’t always, and a recent interaction with my daughter illustrates this point.  Here’s the scenario.  My wife and I are in the kitchen discussing some work we are planning on the house.  One daughter is in the adjacent family room watching a TV show on the DVR (which I have already seen).  Our other daughter has a friend over and they are preparing food in the kitchen.  It is your typical family situation, lots of activity going on.  The daughter who is watching TV asks me how I think a particular character in the show feels about a particular development.  Simultaneously, my wife, with whom I am already having a discussion, asks me a question.  I respond to my wife’s question and begin to mentally formulate an answer for my daughter.  Next I simultaneously receive a repeat of the question from my daughter and another response from my wife.  I respond to my wife.  Before I can disengage from that conversation to respond to my daughter, my daughter protests that she is being ignored.  I now feel unfairly criticized and snap back at her.

It is easiest to look at this exchange from my own viewpoint.  You are calling to me from the next room while I am in the middle of a conversation.  Then you criticize me for not being able to respond to you quickly enough.  Of course my response sounds angry.

Let’s look at this from a different perspective.  In John Gottman’s research on couple relationships, he noted the presence of “bids for connection.”  These are both verbal and nonverbal attempts to stay connected.  In observing couple interactions, partners might do this 100 times in 10 minutes.  To not receive a response is to have one’s bid for connection rejected (Gottman, 2002).  The long run viability of the couple relationship correlates with how these bids for connection are received and responded to.  This does not just apply to couple relationships, but to any significant relationship.

The interaction I described looks different from my daughter’s perspective.

Bid for connection.

No response.

Repeat bid for connection.

No response.

Protest lack of response.

Angry response.

The interaction looks and feels very different from this perspective.  The perception is “You are not there for me.  I do not matter to you.”  It is a painful place to be.  From an attachment perspective the natural response is to protest the disconnection.

In marital relationships, this can play out repeatedly over a lifetime together.  Being able to recognize a bid for connection and respond is a good thing.  Even more powerful is to be able to enter into another’s experience and see the interaction from their viewpoint.  This is not always easy, but it can be transforming to a relationship.

Epilogue: I showed this post to my daughter to get her buy-in before putting it up on the blog.  She shared with me how she had been feeling ignored on the day in question even before the above exchange.  Even when you think you understood the other person’s experience, there can still be more.  The more trust you can build in the relationship, the greater the opportunity to understand.

Reference

Gottman, J. (2002). The relationship cure.  New York: Three Rivers Press.

“I work with individuals, couples, and families to help develop secure connections
and craft manageable solutions.”

More information is available on my website www.scottwoodtherapy.com.  I am also available for speaking engagements, seminars, and retreats http://scottwoodtherapy.com/Page5.html.

Scott Wood is a registered marriage and family therapist intern (IMF67385) and is supervised by Dr. Melinda Reinicke, Psychologist (Psy11011).

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