© Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Jan
Hanson, L.Ac., 2005
Empathy:A Key Relationship Skill
My husband and I communicate well enough on the surface, but I feel we
are drifting apart deep down. I for one don't feel like he understands
me that much any more.
The basis of emotional closeness in a relationship is empathy, the
foundation of the experience of "we" rather than just "I" or "you." If
you sense that your partner really feels how it is for you, you feel
less stressed, plus closer and more trusting, and more inclined to give
empathy to him - and the same is certainly true for him with regard to you.
Fundamentally, empathy is a skill, like any other, and you can get
better at it. And much the same, you can ask your partner to get better
at it, too! Plus, getting better at empathy will only help a person
become a better parent.
Empathy is not agreement or approval. It is simply understanding, the
intuitive sensing of another person's underlying feelings, wants, and
psychological dynamics - looking at the world from behind the other's
eyes. "What would I be feeling if I were him or her?"
Empathy is the expression of four basic skills:
- Pay attention
- Dig down
- Double check
Attention is like a spotlight, illuminating its object - and you can get
better at attention in several ways:
- Calm yourself.
- Consciously choose to give your attention over to your partner for a
- Just listen, without developing your case against what the other is
- Keep the focus on the other's experience, rather than on circumstances
or beliefs or ideas
Empathy is a process of discovery. You study what is under one stone.
Then you ask an open-ended question, such as the ones below, that turns
Can you say more about ___________?
How was it for you that ___________?
How do you feel about him/her?
What do you mean when you say _____________?
What's your gut feeling about __________?
What do you think about ____________?
What is really bothering you?
What are you concerned they'll do?
What was the most upsetting part of all that?
What do you wish would have happened instead?
How was this like ____________ [i.e. some similar thing] for you?
The personality is layered like a parfait, with softer and younger
material at the bottom. The empathic listener:
- Tries to get a sense of the softer feelings - hurt, fear, or shame -
that are usually behind anger or a tough facade.
- Imagines the insecure, scared, suffering person behind the other's eyes.
- Wonders how childhood and other experiences could have affected his or
her thoughts, feelings, and wants today.
- Considers the underlying, positive wants - e.g., safety, autonomy,
feeling valued - the other is seeking to fulfill, although perhaps in
ways one doesn't like.
- Inquires gently about the deeper layers - without trying to play
therapist. This must be done carefully, usually toward the end of a
conversation, without making it seem like the here-and-now elements in
what the other is saying are unimportant, especially if they are about
When we receive a communication, we need to tell the sender, "Message
received." Otherwise, he or she will tend to keep broadcasting, ever
more powerfully, in an effort to get through. Try questions like these:
"Let me say back what I hear you saying. Are you saying that
The Rewards of Empathy
I'm not sure I fully understand this, but is it like ___________?
Is the key point that ____________?
Is it correct to say that you felt ___________?
So one part is _________, another part is _________, and a third part
is __________, right?
With a better idea of the feelings and wants of our partner, we are more
able to solve problems together. It's like dancing: a couple shines
when each person is attuned to the other's mood and rhythms and intentions.
Additionally, when our partner feels understood, he or she is more
willing to extend understanding in turn. Once pure survival needs are
handled, the deepest question of all in any important relationship is,
"Do you understand me?" Until it is answered with a "Yes," that
question will keep troubling the waters of any the relationship.
But when understanding is continually refreshed by new empathy,
connections are constantly re-knit, strengthening the fabric of the
(Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson is
an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and
son, ages 12 and 14. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the
authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind,
and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see their
website at www.nurturemom.com or email them with questions or
comments at firstname.lastname@example.org; unfortunately, a personal reply may
not always be possible.)