Relational Challenge of the Week- #8
Among the psychobabble terms freely tossed about is the word, “empathy.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary 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.” Or more simply, empathy is identifying with another person’s feelings or putting your feet in the shoes of another.
To be able to pause and consider a situation from another person’s perspective on life offers profound benefits toward increasing our understanding of our partner. While some people may be more naturally gifted in showing empathy, it is a skill that can be learned. However, it will mean that you will have to forego those instantaneous outbursts when someone upsets you.
Challenging ourselves to become empathic is more than just slowing down on our responses and listening to others. Practicing empathy will begin with you becoming more self-aware of your own feelings. Consider a typical conversation where a wife tells her husband, “You wasted another $75 on a gadget, I just don’t get you.” Your internal reactions might include “I didn’t like what I just heard. I’m really hurt by that little comment of hers. Who does she think she is telling me how to take care of my money? I am going to tell her that she spends way more than I do on stupid things.” What you choose to say will be impacted by how you have paid attention to this internal conversation.
If we don’t just spout off the first things that came to mind, we may begin toward the practice of empathy and problem-solving. First, we will need to get in touch with our feelings. In this scenario, we are obviously hurt. Next, we decide not to simply react, but more empathically respond. So we take our new emotional awareness and proceed to become aware of the other person’s feelings.
You may be thinking, “why didn’t she tell me what she was feeling, I guess I confuse her.” You’re right it would be nice if people clearly stated how they felt and the way they looked at situations, but this does not occur very often. This does not mean you have to just become a mind reader. It does mean becoming aware of body language and tone.
Once we are aware of ourselves, gauged whatever clues are there we can respond. “I think I’ve upset you again and now you are confused about my latest purchase. Am I reading you right?” After we have listened to the other’s response, we need to endeavor to practice empathy or to see it from their eyes. We follow up on this by other statements like,
-You thought we had it all settled in the budget and then I spend more money, I see how that would upset you.
-I see that you feel uncomfortable about my gadgets when you are trying to save for the kids Christmas presents.
Empathy goes beyond resolving fights. It can be found in sharing the thrill of an accomplishment or giving a hug when the other person is feeling grieved.
After all this heavy material, how about some fun ways of getting into the groove of seeing things from the other person’s perspective. Try these challenges to gain understanding of where the other person lives.
1. Play a board game like chess or checkers. Have a set of dice ready for your use. After each turn role the dice. If you roll doubles, switch sides. You will still try to win from whatever side you are playing, but now you will have to ask yourself, “what was the other person trying to accomplish,” “what is he or she thinking about here?” After the game discuss how each of you felt about your experience of seeing it from the other person’s perspective.
2. Switch up doing a chore of moderate difficulty. Each of you should pick a chore done in your household and let the other person do it.
a. After you complete the chore, share how you thought the other person felt about doing the chore. For example, “I thought you really liked to do that chore, you always seem to take pride in doing a good job.” “I think you really didn’t like doing that even though it just took a couple of minutes, you really hated getting it done.”
b. Share any new insights that you have about doing that chore.
“There’s a big difference between showing interest and really taking interest.”
— Michael P. Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening