Empathy – Building Connections
Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy is a fundamental building block in close and intimate relationships but can be overlooked at times. Many individuals grow up in homes where they are not taught or modeled empathy, so the idea of connecting with others through vulnerable emotions is foreign to them in their adult relationships. The trouble with this is that the natural response for many individuals when they are faced with someone else’s uncomfortable emotions is to try and make things better. This can prove to be a detriment to relationships because it drives disconnection.
Dr. David Burns outlines three steps to empathy:
- The Disarming Technique – Find some truth in what the other person is saying, even it seems totally unreasonable or unfair. Try to stay without judgement.
- Thought Empathy & Feeling Empathy – Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to see the world through his or her eyes. Identify the person’s thoughts and feelings.
- Inquiry – Ask gentle, probing questions to learn more about what the other person is thinking and feeling.
The path to empathy can be scary and difficult to understand at first, but making the choice to feel with other people can take relationships to euphoric places. Rarely can any response make something better for another person so feeling with them can show love, support and understanding. It can be uncomfortable to hear about another person’s suffering – but in that moment, they don’t need you to fix it or make them feel better, they need to feel that they are not alone.
Brené Brown speaks about the importance of empathy and the natural tendency for individuals to silver line other people’s emotions. She said, “Empathy is a choice and it is a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling. In the face of very difficult conversations, we try to make things better. The truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
Aziza Giga-Hirji MSW, RSW specializes in the areas of communication and relationships, as well as many others. For more information on Aziza, her work, or other articles she’s written for Living Well click here to link to her full bio page.