2. Look for feelings.
It’s easy to get swept away in the facts of what happened during the heat of a conflict discussion. This is where couples get stuck. They argue over who is “right,” and yet both views are valid. Being “rational” about the facts inhibits empathy because it invalidates emotions.
This is why Dr. Gottman suggests concentrating on what your partner is feeling. Listen to what they need.
3. Climb into the hole.
When you listen to your partner’s feelings with your whole being, it becomes a lot easier to understand their perspective. I related to the visual Brené Brown paints of a hurt partner being down in a dark hole, because I know when I am feeling sad or upset, I feel like I’m alone in a pit of pain.
What I really crave in these moments is not for someone to throw a rope down, but for someone to climb into the hole with me. To feel what I feel.
Dr. Gottman refers to empathy as a mind meld. To attune to your partner requires the ability to experience their feelings on such a level that you almost become your partner. Empathy is so deeply connecting that it’s physical.
This is why Brené Brown says empathy is vulnerable. To attune to your partner’s difficult feelings requires you to connect with that feeling within yourself.
If you’re having trouble climbing into the hole with your partner, start by being curious about what they’re feeling. Ask questions to help you understand why they are feeling that way. This will make it easier for you to empathize with their experience.
4. Summarize and validate.
During your State of the Union Meeting, you’ll get a chance to summarize what you heard. When doing this, express that you respect your partner’s perspectives and feelings as natural and valid, even if they’re different from your own. Instead of saying, “You want me to be at home more during the week because if I’m not, it makes you feel like I don’t value you” you can say, “It makes sense to me that you want me home more nights of the week.” Other empathizing statements include “Of course you feel…” and “How could you not feel…”
Validating your partner’s perspective doesn’t require you to abandon your own. Empathizing shows that you understand why they have those feelings and needs.
Dr. Gottman explains that “validation is such a fundamental component of attunement that summarizing without it is like having sex without love.”
Behind every complaint is a deep personal longing. When you realize this, it becomes a lot easier to make the choice to be empathetic instead of taking your partner’s complaint personally and defending yourself.
Empathy takes practice. When couples are first learning these skills, I like to start with the Stress-Reducing Conversation because it’s about issues outside of the relationship, making it easier to practice the skill of empathy.
It’s also worth noting that we have to receive empathy to feel empathy. By receiving empathy, not only do we feel how amazing it is to be understood, we also learn about the courage it takes to be vulnerable.
Instead of trying to change or fix the feelings of the person you love, focus on connecting with them. As Brené Brown puts it, “rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is a connection.”
Next week we will show you part one of the State of the Union Meeting with real life examples.