We always hear stories where a woman is upset, and the man tries to solve her problem, when what she really needs is for him to just listen. In my last relationship, it was he that was really good at giving empathy, and I who had to learn the hard way.
I was an intellectual kid. My dad, an aerospace engineer, taught me to only do what’s logical. I grew up reading Tony Robbins books and watching Wayne Dyer on public broadcasting, and when something’s not working, you just create a new intention and do something different. You don’t let yourself feel bad. I got into Yoga and meditation and when you have a “negative” emotion, its just part of the illusion or the ego; not something to put your attention on.
So naturally when my ex was upset or hurt, I would try to talk him out of it. Of course I thought I was helping.
He’d say he had a bad day and I’d say, “Can’t be that bad; what was good about it?” He’d say he was hurt and I’d get defensive, like, “I didn’t mean it that way; here’s how I meant it.”
Or if he was angry I would argue back. I actually remember a moment when he said he felt inadequate and I told him I wasn’t ok with him feeling that way; he has to “suck it up and feel strong instead.” Ouch. Now I realize that’s what many men fear: revealing their vulnerability, and having a woman kick him when he’s down.
As time went on and we were realizing that our lives were going in different directions, we kept fighting and I knew I had to learn empathy or we would break up in anger. I knew I loved him so even if we wound up breaking up, I wanted it to be on good terms, not out of fighting. So I dove wholeheartedly into learning skills like Nonviolent Communication and co-counseling.
I actually hung a sheet of feelings and needs on our living room wall and for a while I had to take a time out when he was expressing a feeling, look at the sheet, feel the feeling myself, and then come back to the conversation; to avoid my usual urge to talk him out of it.
Or I’d have to stop and take a few deep breaths and learn to say, “I hear that you’re feeling hurt. [remember time that I’ve felt hurt, check. Call up that feeling, check. Compassion on, check] “That must be really difficult. Tell me more.”
I thought it was just enough to affirm that “I am enough” and deny that any part of me felt different. But when I learned to really sit with the feelings, they shifted and paradoxically I actually feel the truth that I’m enough; it’s not just intellectual.
I created time each day to feel my feelings. If I was scared about what would happen to our relationship, I would take deep breaths, feel the fear in my body (usually a tightness in my chest, and a sinking feeling in my belly). I would ask the fear, “What do you really not want to happen?” And I would see a scenario of him telling me he never wanted to speak to me again.” I would feel the emotion run through me until it dissipated, and then I learned to recognize the values underneath the emotion. If I’m scared of losing him, I really care about our connection. I want to feel connected to him, no matter what he’s feeling. I felt that desire well up in my body and I learned to hold that desire without being attached to what our relationship looked like.
Eventually, when he was hurt or scared, I was able to respond by feeling it with him, with compassion, and asking him questions to get into his world. I started asking from a place of connection, “What does that feel like?” “Tell me more about that.” “It makes sense that you feel that way, how can I support you?” And when he was angry at me, I was able to hear the feelings and values underneath it instead of getting angry back.
For example, if he yelled at me and said, “You’re late! You obviously don’t care about our time together!” I wouldn’t say, “Yes I do!” (like I would have said) But instead I said, with genuine curiosity, “Are you angry because you want me to show you that I care about spending time with you, and if I show up on time that’s how I show that I care?” And then feel how much that’s important to him, with understanding and compassion.
Not only did we get really emotionally close (although we both connected romantically with other people…which was a long time coming… so we wound up becoming best friends), this transformation affected all of my relationships. For example, when my Dad gives me advice, I used to think he was trying to control me; now I just feel how much he cares, even if I don’t agree, and then I feel connected instead of judgmental. When a friend tells me she’s sad,I’ve learned to feel it with her instead of trying to talk her out of it.
Empathy has been incredibly transformative in regards to my inner-self too. I used to have a strong inner critic that would beat me up if I made a mistake, telling me I should know better, or I’m not good enough, etc. When I learned how to empathize with the voice instead of judging it, it stopped talking so harshly. It just needs me to hear what its REALLY trying to tell me, before it goes away, and it usually has a different message each time. Sometimes it wants me to comfort it; keep it company like I would a scared child or pet, and then it calms down and lets me try things that are uncomfortable. Or it agrees to quiet down if after I expand my comfort zone, I take a bath and relax. Sometimes it wants me to assess my performance, like ask what can I learn so I can do better next time? It’s not actually trying to criticize me; it just wants me to do a non-judgmental assessment to learn and grow, and then it calms down. The key for me was learning how to empathize, and then it shifts.
And even though I’ve been coaching people for the past 8 years, empathy has transformed my style of coaching. I used to help people set goals, manage progress towards them, and if their attitude wasn’t working, try to change it. Now if a client doesn’t meet a goal, I get curious, what other priority ARE they meeting? Staying safe/not taking risks? Comfort, ease, security, not rocking the boat? These are needs we all have, and it’s important to not just bulldoze over them, but honor them and feel them. When I empathize with what needs clients are getting met by their current behaviors, THEN there’s room to figure out how to get those needs met and still move forward. And then the change actually sticks! Now I’m passionate about teaching empathy because of what a difference it’s made in my life and the lives of my clients.
photo credit: Flickr/Neal Fowler