Research done at the Greater Good Science showed that empathy has a genetic foundation but as you experience life, you can enhance or restrict your natural empathic tendencies. Generally, the more empathy you feel, the more you are able to take your partner’s perspective into consideration. Yet, how can you still listen to the voice of empathy in times of conflict when other negative emotions may keep you focused on what you want from the other one?
Empathy, shortly defined as the ability to put yourself in other’s shoes, is for me the fundamental ability on which all the other abilities that make us human are built – compassion, kindness, sensitivity, love, positivity, etc.
Emotions researchers at The Greater Good Science Center define empathy as “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling”.
Acting with empathy can bring benefits, such as:
In social and organisational situations when there is emotional distance between you, as the person acting based on empathy and the person to whom the empathy is directed, it may be more natural to follow the voice of empathy.
Empathy can have benefits in relationships as well by increasing the intimacy between partners and help them solve conflicts. The challenge in a love relationship is that due to close intimacy, you may feel more vulnerable and may get either into a very defensive or very offensive mindset.
When your mind is clouded with anger, it may be hard to remember even the word empathy, so much less how to use your empathy. Let’s say you’re arguing with your partner about how to parent your kids.
This is a great moment to practice taking your partner’s perspective even when you may not feel like it. To get motivated to start considering your partner’s emotions, it may help to think that both of you want the same thing: the happiness of your children.
When you accept this common starting point for discussion, you can try to let go of your feelings of anger and frustration, and focus your attention on the partner’s facial expressions and behaviour. How does he feel about this debate? Is he equally irritated? Is he talking in a higher tone of voice? Is he more open to compromise or is he trying to enforce his own point of view?
He may be more willing to start talking about a “meet me in the middle” solution if he realises that you try to understand him. So, how about asking him why he thinks that his way of parenting is better?
What is his main motivation for adopting that particular parenting style? In what style was he raised by his parents – more free or more dictatorial? What did he like about that style? And if he didn’t like it, what is it that he didn’t like about that style?
Listening to the answers can make you forget about your anger and frustration that he does not understand your point of view. When the anger and frustration are out of the way, only then, it is a good time for you to explain how you see it fit to raise your children. Some mutual compromises may be required but what’s most important is that overall, both you and your partner feel more satisfaction about the solution you came up with.
After each conflict resolution, you can consider what went well and what went wrong from the point of view of empathic listening during the discussions. If you are anything like me, it may be that you need to work more on anger management. In this case, you may think of a few tricks that you can apply to keep your anger under control in the next conflict.
You can also ask your partner opinion’s about how you handled the discussion. At the same time, you can let him know how he handled it. Remember to mention the things he did good in your view and what he said or did that made you feel that you’re not being listened to.
Eventually, both partners need to attune the empathic abilities to each other so that they can dance each other very tenderly and very long to the end of love, as Leonard Cohen sings in “Dance me to the end of love“.
Summing up, whenever you’re having a conflict with your partner, try to enhance your empathic abilities by:
1. Thinking of a common motivation that you both have for the respective discussion;
2. Detect your partner’s gestures and mood;
3. Ask questions to help you see what hides behind his openly stated arguments;
4. Express your feelings, thoughts and intentions;
5. After the conflict, muse on the aspects you are satisfied with and also those that you would like to work on further;
6. Ask your partner if he was hurt by something you did or said during the conflict.
7. Inform your partner about what he did that hurt your feelings during the argument.
8. Remember the lessons for the next conflict.
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