Why Having Empathy Matters by Holly Eaton
Empathy is a foundational part of love. Some people are naturally good at it, and some are not. The latter need to work at learning how to empathize if they are to ever have successful, close relationships. Dr. Steve Arterburn says, “Willingness to grow and change is key to developing new relational skills.” Empathy is an essential relational skill.
I grew up in Baltimore. It was dangerous. While in elementary school, I was the target of two attempted kidnappings. From an early age, fear was part of my DNA. When I was 20, hoping to build rapport with my Mom, I decided to let down my guard and discuss a very sensitive issue with her. With a deep breath and great vulnerability, I revealed that I was still struggling with fear in my life. Mom replied, “Wow. I would’ve thought you’d outgrown that by now!” End of conversation; I immediately shut down and retreated. It was many years before I ever even considered being vulnerable around her again. My self-protection kept us emotionally distant, because it was too painful to be honest.
I needed empathy from my Mother. I needed understanding and acceptance. Had she demonstrated sensitivity and communicated that she could relate to my feelings, that would have bonded us together, rather than propel us apart.
Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also, the capacity for this.” Let's look at several steps you can take to learn and practice this vital relational skill.
The first step in empathizing is to listen. Listen for content and for feelings. Try to connect with the person’s emotions without judging. Judgment is counterproductive. Whatever the person is feeling makes perfect sense for who they are, their past experiences and belief systems, and the impact the situation had. So, consider if you had experienced all that they did, how might you feel?
Secondly, affirm them. In every relationship, it’s vital to be able to separate a person’s identity (God’s image-bearer) from their behaviors. No matter what we’ve done, God never stops loving us. No matter what our children do, we parents love them, regardless of how we feel. No matter what our spouse does, we’ve made a lifelong commitment to love them, with or without warm emotions. Affirm that the person is loved regardless of what has happened, and that you are here for them because your relationship is a higher priority than the issue at hand. When two people agree that their relationship is more important than any issue, and they agree to work together, and they are both securely in God’s lap, they can conquer anything that the enemy throws at them attempting to divide them. And help is available.
Regardless of the situation, they first need to know they’re in a safe environment and that you are their “safe person.” Then they can express their feelings, even if their feelings seem unreasonable. They need to know that you’re not going to punish them for feeling or saying something outrageous. Affirmation comes in the form of unconditional love of the person regardless of their behavior.
Thirdly, respond; don’t react. Take your thoughts captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5) and take dominion over your own feelings, as God told Cain to do in Genesis 4:7-9. Focus on the other person and what they need. Reacting by blaming, criticizing, or emotionally vomiting on them will harm your relationship. Intentionally responding, thoughtfully, calmly and being sensitive to the other’s needs, considering how they might be affected by your response, grows your relationship.
Here are some empathetic responses you can try:
“I’m so sorry... That must have been painful. How can I help?”
“I hear you. It sounds terrible.”
“I want to support you. Help me understand more about...”
“How did you feel when that happened?” and “How are you feeling about it now?”
“That must feel overwhelming...”
“I can see how distressed you are. It’s ok to cry.”
“That sounds really difficult. No wonder you’re upset.”
“I can tell that you feel sad. Would you like to talk about it? Would you like a hug?”
“Oh, dear, I’m sorry that happened. I love you.”
Finally, after the immediate crisis has passed and emotions are under control, address the issue or behavior, speaking the truth in love, maintaining the fact that the relationship is primary, above any behaviors or consequences. Avoid blaming, name-calling and retaliation. Calmly address the consequences, figure out a game-plan, and pursue help if needed.
If you are looking for helpful resources, tv.newlife.com has a plethora of helpful 20-minute videos that address nearly every topic you could imagine. In his video on Empathy, Dr. Arterburn gives examples of ways to communicate empathetically with your spouse. Don't hesitate to check them out!
I invite your feedback and inquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org. Healthy, loving relationships require ongoing effort for all of us. You don’t have to do it alone; there is help and counsel right here. I’m currently welcoming new clients. You can call me at 612-239-4178 to set up an appointment.
In God's Lap With You,
Holly Eaton, Clinical Christian Counselor
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