How to Become A More Empathic (and Less Defensive) Partner
The hard questions you need to ask yourself, because there's so much at stake.
Posted July 8, 2016
Empathy is defined as the psychological identification with, or vicarious experiencing of, the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. Empathy results from understanding another person deeply. When we look at the world from our partner’s point of view, we begin to bridge the gap of understanding between us. But when we are emotionally activated by tension, fear, and anger, it is extremely difficult to empathize with and understand the other person’s perspective—we are too wrapped up in our own thoughts to think clearly.
When we take time to soothe ourselves, space becomes available to see a different perspective. We begin to notice that we have something to do with the predicament we find ourselves in. The very instant we're able to see the part we play in the situation, we can notice our lack of empathy and understanding, and our anger lessens. And when we are not focused on being right and making the other person out to be so wholly wrong, there is room to see an issue from their point of view. Moving away from our heels-in-the-cement position allows the other person to become more flexible, too. By taking responsibility for our role in the conflict, we set up a dynamic in which our partner is more apt to take responsibility for their actions.
It's hard not to be defensive—dropping defensiveness is one of the hardest things to do. We become defensive when we're afraid and try to protect ourselves from this fear. When our partner tries to protect himself or herself by being argumentative, aggressive, evasive, withdrawing or trying to avoid being emotionally vulnerable, rather than trying to get them to stop, try asking yourself and her these questions:
- Is there anything I am doing that is causing you to feel anxious or frightened right now?
- Am I giving you a reason not to trust me?
- Am I acting or speaking in ways that make you feel I am not respecting what you're saying or feeling?
- What is it that you want me to understand?
These are powerful questions and it's probably better not to ask them unless you're prepared to accept your partner's responses without judging or questioning them. To do so only gives him or her more reasons to feel unsafe and misunderstood. Listening without blame or judgment promotes empathy, which is the antidote to defensiveness. Tension can dissolve very quickly if we are sincerely willing to try to empathize with the truth of our partner's feelings and perceptions.
When a deliberate decision is made to take the time and effort to search for our own part in any given breakdown in a relationship and to put ourselves aside enough to look at the issue from the other person's point of view, the possibility for understanding expands. With practice, over time we become more empathic partners. When we commit to becoming more empathic, we begin to look for our complicity; we pay closer attention. This higher level of responsibility leads to less arguing, more harmony, and more closeness. Once we realize how much is at stake—the well-being of our relationship—the motivation to cultivate empathy intensifies, and we are no longer willing to settle for less.
Stay tuned for the second part of this series, "14 Ways to Cultivate Empathy."
We are excited to announce the release of our third book, Happily Ever After . . . and 39 Other Myths about Love: Breaking Through to the Relationship of Your Dreams.
“Love experts Linda and Charlie shine a bright light, busting the most common myths about relationships. Using real-life examples, they skillfully, provide effective strategies and tools to create and grow a deeply loving and fulfilling long-term connection.” – Arielle Ford, author of Turn You Mate into Your Soulmate