Empathy: More Than a Technique

Posted on April 17, 2014


“Whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks.” Felix the Cat Theme[1]

“You don’t know what it’s like to be me.”  Tom Petty

I spend a reasonable amount of this blog and my professional life teaching men how to demonstrate empathy to their wives.  A couple of times recently, men have told me, “I tried saying, ‘I understand[2] that you are angry,’ and she was still mad.”  I asked, “What do you think was happening for her right then?”  The reply is, “I don’t know.”

Though communicating empathy is a skill that can be learned, 1) it does not mean that your partner isn’t mad anymore, and 2) it doesn’t work very well in the absence of genuine empathy.  Communicating empathy is a skill, but it is critical that you are actually able to empathize.  You actually need to have an idea of what the world looks like through your partner’s eyes.  The power happens when your partner feels like you really understand (and care about) her experience.

You actually know how to do this already.  Think about a movie that you really love.  I would assume part of what you like about that movie is having a character you can identify with.  What makes the story work is that you are able to enter into that character’s experience.  You see the world through that character’s eyes.  Without consciously thinking about it, you consider what it feels like to be that character and in that situation.

So why is it different with your partner?  Well, you are not outside the scene looking in.  If your partner is hurt by something you said, did, or didn’t do, before you can empathize, you need to step out of your own “oh no, here we go again” experience to be able to enter into your partner’s experience.

Even when you really do get it and your partner feels that you get it, it does not make the feeling go away.  It just creates emotional safety to be able to process the feeling and make it manageable.  Empathy puts you on the same team.  It creates connection.

Empathy is more than just a tool in your bag of tricks.  Take a deep breath and try it again.  You can do this.


[1] When you are writing a blog, it helps if you can quote the great philosophers like Felix the Cat.

[2] You really need to eliminate the words “I understand” from your vocabulary unless you enjoy having your partner get angrier and tell you, “You don’t understand.”  You communicate understanding by the content of the reflection and not by the words, “I understand.”