How You Can Truly Empathize With Those You Don’t Agree With
Have you ever been in a situation in which, while trying to comfort or resolve an argument with your significant other, you are accused of being insensitive or trying to “fix” the situation?
Are you quick to defend yourself or find it difficult to find common ground with your partner on issues you disagree with?
Effective communication during times of disagreement begins with empathy. And in our couples therapy work with our clients, this is one of the most important skills that we emphasize.
Empathy, unlike sympathy, asks that we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Beyond feeling compassion or pity towards another person, empathy is an active effort to understand the experience and perspective of others.
Why Empathy Is Important
Empathy is a critical component of good communication between you and your significant other because empathy encourages sincere connection and acknowledgment of the other person’s experiences.
We do not need to agree with the other person in order to show empathy. Rather, demonstrating empathy supports and encourages the other person to feel comfortable about sharing their feelings.
When we give space and nurture each other’s opinions and feelings with the help of empathy, we find that even when we disagree, we can come to an understanding of each other’s perspectives that promote a healthy resolution.
What We Mistake as Empathy
Sometimes, we can confuse what it means to show empathy during a disagreement. The most common mistake is that we only sympathize with our partner. Sympathy doesn’t ask us to connect with the experience or perspective of our partners but to pity or console them.
Although sympathy is not a negative quality to have, it can often prevent us from truly understanding what it is that our partner is trying to communicate to us because we are approaching the issue from our own perspective and not theirs.
Empathy is also not endorsing the other person’s side over yours. We might want to or find it easier to concede to our partner rather than hold our ground. Empathy does not require you to abandon your own experiences or perspective. It only asks that you work to understand the experiences and perspective of another alongside your own.
Couples who demonstrate empathy towards one another typically find that they have not lost their own voice but rather feel their voice is more respected.
How to Get Some Empathy in Your Relationship
Empathy is an on-going practice that becomes more natural over time. The most important thing to remember is to be present. This presence will lead you to consider an empathy-focused communication skill known as active listening.
Active listening is a skill we can employ daily that lets the other person know that we are present in the conversation. We break down active listening into 3 major parts: attention, feedback, and response.
We can demonstrate our attention by keeping consistent eye-contact, refraining from creating a rebuttal or other distracting thoughts, nodding, etc. Along with the physical responses, you can ask the person to clarify their point of view, explain what emotions they are experiencing, and what they need from you.
Don’t try to assume you know the experience of the other person. Ask the questions that not only demonstrate to them that you are listening, but also that you are actively seeking to put yourself in their shoes.
Feedback is a way to reassure the speaker that not only their words but overall argument is being heard and understood. It works differently than endorsing in that, validating experience through feedback does not ask that we agree with what the other person is feeling but rather demonstrates that we are working to understand.
Try to rephrase what you think the speaker is saying to show comprehension. For example, “What I am understanding is that you feel…” You won’t be abandoning your own opinions but still respecting the experience of your partner.
Active listening is intended for each person to learn. One way that we learn to empathize is with reflection. Perhaps you have felt similar, or have been equally as frustrated as your partner before. Or, perhaps you have never felt the same way as your partner and can think about how your perspective is different from theirs. This reflection promotes a meaningful connection between you and your partner.
In addition, make sure you communicate your own responses in a way that is non-aggressive and leaves an opening for continued discussion.
Empathy is not always a natural skill. For some of us, it takes practice and a focus on what verbal and non-verbal cues demonstrate empathy. Active listening is one tool that ensures a presence of empathy during a disagreement. With empathy, disagreements can find resolution without abandoning our own opinions.