We all have an innate need to connect with our fellow humans. Thankfully we were given the gift of language as one of our tools to establish connections.
While most of us have the ability to communicate, we often overlook a quality that can enhance our communication skills, taking them from “good enough” to “excellent.” What is that quality?
In this article, we will explore how to build empathy in relationships so that we can learn the nuanced art of listening with understanding and without judgment.
Developing empathy skills will add a depth to your personal and professional relationships, one that will be enriching for both you and the people with whom you are seeking connection.
What is empathy?
Simply put, empathy is the capacity to put oneself in another’s shoes, to see their worldview through a lens that is not necessarily our own. Many of us do this intuitively. An example of this might be illustrated with the parent-child relationship.
Your preschooler is playing with other children in the park. Suddenly he runs to you, crying. “My friend doesn’t want to share his toy with me!” he sobs.
You gather him up in your arms and comfort him, saying, “That must feel so awful. You really like that toy he’s got, don’t you? “. Those words of understanding!
This is just one way to show your empathy towards your son and this situation. You are communicating to him that while you cannot force his friend to share the toy with him, you know exactly how frustrating this feels to your child.
This sense of being heard and understood is very reassuring to the person who is hurting. “Empathy is feeling with people”, according to life expert Brené Brown.
From a neuroscience point of view, empathy happens when two parts of the brain work together. The emotional center picks up on the feelings of others, while the cognitive center processes these and tries to understand why they feel this way and how we might be helpful to them.
Empathy is another word for compassion
At the heart of empathy is a sense of compassion. This can be compassion for an individual or for a situation.
When we see media coverage of a natural disaster, a flood, or wildfire, for example, our mirror neurons fire up, igniting inside of us feelings of compassion and empathy for the persons affected by the disaster.
Mirror neurons are brain pathways that light up when we witness an event or scene that we connect with.
Mirror neurons are also responsible for that feeling we get when viewing a horror movie- we become tense and feel fear when the soon-to-be-victim opens that forbidden door or goes down to the dark basement to investigate a strange noise.
Without mirror neurons, we would not be able to feel empathy towards other peoples’ feelings and situations. Mirror neurons are the foundation for compassion in relationships.
Kindness and love begin with empathy. When we build empathy within our relationship, we connect from a place of emotional truth.
We show the other that we understand their emotions, their vulnerabilities, their fears.
Practicing empathy is a way to remind each other that we are not alone. We are more similar than we are different.
To learn how to build empathy and practice it, you need to take the first step towards improving your understanding of your partner. Not just how you see them but how they really are.
Why is cultivating empathy so important in a relationship?
Before we discuss how to build empathy in relationships, we need to understand why it is so important to cultivate empathy in relationships.
Lack of empathy in a relationship could lead to partners being inconsiderate or indifferent towards each other.
Empathy is at the core of what it means to be human.
Empathy allows us to act from a place of ethics, kindness, and respect. It opens us up to the truth that there are multiple ways of seeing the same thing.
Empathy allows us to connect with others in a deeply meaningful way. Without empathy, the relationship remains on a superficial level.
Being more empathetic in your relationship is a life skill that pays off in substantial benefits, not only for your partner but for you as well.
Empathy helps your connect with your partner better
It allows for your partner to feel that they matter. Feeling like we matter is one of our most primal needs as humans.
When you practice empathy in the context of your relationship, you are practicing high-level communication and listening skills. You allow your partner their feelings and emotions without going in to try and “fix” things.
Becoming more empathetic in a relationship can mean just accompanying your partner in their feelings. You are not attempting to provide a solution or repair their hurt.
The life benefits of practicing empathy and compassion
The benefits of practicing compassion and empathy in relationships are multiple. They allow you to
Become a multifaceted person with an ability to examine diverse situations from different perspectives
Immerse yourself in different opportunities to learn about other cultures, other ways of looking at the world
Enhance curiosity and learn about things that are important to other people
Provide real and meaningful support to your partner, your professional community, your social community
Enhanced communication skills, making others feel like they matter
The first step towards cultivating empathy
How to increase empathy? How to build empathy in relationships? Or, how to be more empathetic in a relationship?
There are several ways to build empathy in relationships, and they all start with you and your level of self-awareness. In order to increase your empathy skills towards others, you need to first tune into your own.
“You need to connect with someone within yourself that knows the feeling that the other person is showing you,” states Brené Brown.
Can you recognize and identify your feelings in any given situation?
Seeing and understanding your spectrum of emotions helps when you wish to empathize with another person’s experience.
4 necessary qualities for building empathy
Now that we know why cultivating empathy is essential, let us understand how to build empathy in relationships.
Perspective-taking, or the capacity to see a situation from another person’s point of view. Recognizing that what they are telling you is “their truth,” even if it differs from yours.
Leaving personal bias out of the conversation.
Recognizing and resonating with the emotion that the other person is feeling
Communicating to the person that you understand their emotion; verbal feedback
Listening with understanding and empathy is important when someone is recounting a painful or emotional situation to allow them their own experience.
Even if you have been through a similar situation, the other person’s worldview is, of course, different from yours. Their early childhood and other developmental experiences are their own. Honor that!
Therapists talk about “just sitting with them” as they share their pain. There is no need to offer advice or judgment.
A simple “It sounds like you are hurting” is an example of an empathic response. “That must feel awful” is another way to show empathy in relationships or.
15 tips for building empathy in a relationship
We now know why empathy is important in relationships. But, how to show empathy? How to become more empathetic?
There are several approaches for development of empathy or practicing empathy in the context of a relationship. The following are listed some of the easy ways to show empathy and strengthen empathic abilities:
Be aware of your partner’s physical and emotional needs.
Understand and respect their individual personality.
Imagine yourself in their shoes when they are communicating their emotions.
Pay attention to your own self-care. In order to build empathy in your relationship, you need to be empathetic towards your own needs and emotions.
Make sure to take time to engage in activities that enhance your personal well-being: sports, yoga, meditation, prayer, massage. Whatever you deem promotes your feelings of physical, spiritual, and mental health.
Pay attention to your partner when they are talking. Don’t just wait for your turn to speak. Consciously give your partner your full attention.
An easy way to learn how to build empathy is by learning what your partner has to say. Ask questions about what they are revealing to you, without forming judgments: “Tell me more about…”, or “How do you feel about….”.
Practice active listening. This means checking back in with your partner to ensure that you have correctly heard what they are communicating to you. “Let me make sure I’ve understood this clearly. Are you saying….?” Or “Did I understand you correctly? You are feeling……?”
Ask questions of your partner. Often in a relationship, you can sense a disturbance in the force even before the other person brings up the subject. If you notice that your partner is sad, ask them how things are going. Never assume; ask for clarity. At the core of empathy lies curiosity.
Branch out of your social circle and meet new people. Since empathy is based on putting yourself in another person’s shoes, meeting new people is one of the empathy building exercises in building such skills.
Cultivate people of different socio-economic backgrounds, races, religions, or political persuasion. Discuss with them to broaden your perspectives and understand why they view things the way they do. Where do their beliefs come from?
When in conversation, put away all distractions such as phones or laptops, so you are fully present.
Volunteer in a community organization. This will provide you with an opportunity to contribute to your community and work alongside people who are different from you.
Challenge your personal biases and look for similarities with others. Practice examining your preconceptions about what it means to be, say, on welfare, or practice a different religion. Then look for what you might have in common with this person.
Make yourself vulnerable. To nurture empathy in a relationship, you want to remove your own “mask and hardware” so that you can reveal your emotions to your partner. This, in turn, allows them to open up to you. Empathy is a two-way street.
Have compassion for your perceived adversaries. Whether it be an opposing political party, or just a family member, practicing compassion towards them will strengthen your empathic abilities.
Step out of your comfort zone. This will allow you to experience what it is like to feel helpless and humble. Feeling humility is a useful tool for developing empathy skills.
Do empaths struggle in relationships?
Without a proper understanding of how to build empathy in a relationship, an empath may find relationships challenging. They can become overwhelmed by the feelings of the partner, taking them on themselves.
Therapists are aware of this effect, which is why they themselves consult with other therapists in order to not carry the burdens of their patients outside of the therapy office.
Empaths need to learn the skill of separating their own feelings from those of their partners so that they do not absorb the other person’s life emotions.
We are all humans, and with that comes a need to connect. In applying empathy to problem-solving at an individual level as well as a societal level, we spread compassion, respect, and kindness.
So, how to build empathy in relationships?
Try practicing some of the tips in this article. Building empathy in relationships will help with the life-sustaining connections, making your world, and the world around you, a better place.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Rachael Pace is a noted relationship writer associated with Marriage.com. She provides inspiration, support, and empowerment in the form of motivational articles and essays. Rachael enjoys studying the evolution of loving partnerships and is passionate about writing on them. She believes that everyone should make room for love in their lives and encourages couples to work on overcoming their challenges together.