Saturday, August 2, 2014


I am usually pretty good at empathy in the counseling room. I am focused and listening at a deep level. But when it comes to Nan, well, I could use some help. The “man gene” kicks in and I begin leaning toward the “analysis and fixing” mode. Nan is not impressed with my skills in those moments.

Worse yet, there are times when I offer criticism or judgment instead of empathy. Now I have entered the relational danger zone.

The ability to understand another person’s experience and feelings is what creates a bond between two people. When we feel empathy in the small and large sufferings we go through in life, somehow we feel less alone, and therefore more resilient to the painful stuff life dishes out.

This is a generalization, but often when couples try to communicate awkward or emotionally painful feelings, they miss each other. Men will often show understanding for each other by joking, or giving advice, while women will express feelings of support and concern. If she is met with humor, or advice, she can feel unheard or uncared for, even as he is attempting to connect. And for a guy, too much empathy might make him feel uncomfortable, but too little will communicate disinterest in his concerns. It’s an intricate dance that has to be learned.

So, how can couples connect at a deeper level? How can they show understanding to one another in a way that is meaningful to their partner?  The first thing is to ask your partner if he/she wants to talk about this issue, then to let them know what you need.  Both people need to be open to change for the sake of their partner.  All change feels awkward and out of character at first. If you see your partner making an effort to be more empathetic, encourage him/her; the behavior will become more natural with time and understanding.

Often people will confuse sympathy, with empathy. The former will create distance, while the latter will produce closeness and emotional connection. Brene Brown has a wonderful illustration of the difference on YouTube. It is a short animated clip – and if you haven’t seen it, I would recommend you watch it now.

After watching the video it occurred to me that we should change an entire classification of greeting cards from “sympathy cards” to “empathy cards”.  Does that sound weird or a great idea?

So how do you respond when faced with someone else’s pain – with sympathy or empathy?

Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2.

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