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August 25, 2020

Practicing More Empathy

As a therapist, and Seventh-day Adventist Christian, I help people improve their relationships with themselves, and others, every day.

One way I do that is through teaching them empathy. Empathy has become somewhat of a catchphrase these days, and is perhaps overused, but few people understand its true usefulness in our daily interactions with each other.

Have you ever gotten into an argument with someone? The answer, of course, is “yes.” Have you ever gotten into an argument that seemed to only get worse and more tense instead of productive? I sure have, and so have many of my clients. When clients complain to me about similar interchanges, I teach them empathy.

I begin by asking the client if they can understand what the other person felt in the exchange and their reasons for feeling that way. They almost always say “No.” If the other person in the disagreement is present, I ask my client to ask the person what they are feeling. Once the other person shares what they are feeling, I ask my client to repeat those feelings back to them while using their own words. For example, “I hear that you are upset with me because I told you I would empty the dishwasher and I didn’t.”  Notice, there are no words of defensiveness or condemnation; there is just a reflection of what my client notices the other person is feeling. Also, and I want to emphasize this part, my client does not have to agree that the person should feel that way, or that they made them feel that way; they are only reflecting the other person’s feelings.

Once the client understands this process and has practiced it, it is time to move on to the next phase. Once the feeling is reflected accurately, I teach my clients to add a phrase that indicates support and care for the person they are talking to. For example, “I would be disappointed, too, if I were expecting something to be done, and it wasn’t”; or, “It is never my intention to disappoint you or hurt you on purpose.”

At this point, if my client still wishes to get defensive or argue, they can; however, oftentimes after taking these two simple steps, neither person feels compelled to continue the argument. If the person who is feeling hurt, angry, upset, sad or another strong emotion feels heard and respected, without judgment or condemnation, there is often no more need to assert one’s point forcefully and continuously.

To summarize, when someone is upset with you, listen for what they’re feeling. Reflect that feeling back to them without judgment or condemnation. You don’t have to agree that they should be feeling that way. Finally, add a supportive and understanding phrase to your reflection.

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It is important to note that this article is not intended to take the place of therapy, medical advice, or to diminish the effects of mental or personality disorders.

Dr. Brad Hinman, LPC, LMFT, AASECT Certified Sex therapist, director, Hinman Counseling Services, assistant professor, Andrews University.