How to practice empathy in relationships and at work: 6 ways

In the holiday season, and in general, it would be great to figure out how to see the world from another person’s perspective.  This can help us become aware of the situations of others, which in turn can help us practice generosity.  Recently Steve Robillard wrote about how we can weather rancorous political debates over holiday family meals, and included some tips on empathy.  More generally, in situations with our families, romantic partners, or even work colleagues, how can we practice empathy?

One approach, based on John and Julie Gottman’s long-term research with married couples, involves 4 steps that anyone can take to understand another’s perspective.  Yes, you can use this even when your romantic partner or in-law or business colleague seems to be weaving webs of insult, devising deceptions, or making outrageous observations.  Indeed, what they mean is not likely what it seems at first.  Our job – as people who aspire to communicate skillfully – is to work compassionately to understand them.  Here’s how:

Steps for Empathy Gottmans Rapoport

1. Listen

This sounds self-explanatory, but listening attentively is actually quite difficult.  In a talk via Audio Dharma, Gil Fronsdal — a teacher of mindfulness meditation — recommended that you try to allocate half of your attention to the other person, and half to yourself.  The latter is so that you can monitor and regulate your reactions to the other person’s words, as well as keep yourself grounded in something like the sensation of your breathing of the feeling of your posture.  In doing so, you learn more about yourself, such as what topics or body language make you feel uncomfortable.  And you are more likely to keep an even keel if you feel grounded in yourself.

2. Ask

Instead of jumping in with snappy rebuttals and finely crafted counter-arguments, we need to help the other person feel that we understand their perspective.  Otherwise it will be obvious that we aren’t hearing them, and then in turn, our opinions will not be heard by them, and then soon the argument will escalate to World War III (Family Version).

How to ask questions?  The Gottmans, in turn distilling wisdom from mathematical psychologist and conflict resolution expert Anatol Rapoport, suggest we first ask open-ended questions.  These are the type that invite further explanation.  For instance:

“What makes that so important to you?” or “Can you help me understand this better?” (“And Baby Makes Three”, p. 68; see more on p. 70)

Second, we can take the most negative or undesirable element of the other person’s behavior and then imagine how we also have behaved that way before.  For instance, if your spouse is frustrated over a money issue, instead of rushing to a judgment like she always gives me a hard time about money!, we might reflect on the times we’ve felt upset about money, too: oh yeah, I remember once I gave her a hard time about the budget.  I was frustrated then.  Maybe she’s feeling frustrated now.

3. Restate

Once you’ve asked enough questions to understand the other person’s perspective, then try to restate their perspective.  This also takes practice.  You can use starting phrases like, “So what I hear you saying is…” or “Sounds like you’re feeling [emotion] about…” until you find words that work for you.  The Gottmans write about Rapoport’s findings:

“We need to be able to state our version of our partner’s point of view to our partner’s satisfaction before stating our own point of view.” (p. 68)

4. Validate

Finally, we can share why the other person’s perspective makes sense to us.  We don’t have to agree with their comments, of course, but it’s critical to fully honor that their feelings are real for them.  The Gottmans provide examples on page 70 including:

“I get it”

“Good point”

“Your views make sense to me because…”

“You have a right to feel [emotion].”

Please see the Gottmans’ book (pages 71-73) for helpful exercises to diagnose your romantic relationship and to practice empathy.

* * *

This is certainly not the only way to approach empathy in relationships and negotiations.  Here are a few others you can try:

  1. Meditate, especially using a practice (like Vipassana or Insight Meditation) that involves mindful speech and listening. Generally this is an awareness practice, but also can help you chill out over time.  For helpful secular introductions to meditation practices, see “Practicing Mindfulness: an Introduction to Meditation” (Mark Muesse; The Great Courses), and “Quiet Mind (Susan Piver, ed.).  These practices generally come from Buddhism but are, as described, stripped down to the practical basics and devoid of any required worldviews or beliefs.  As such, it can be explored by people of faith and atheists alike.
  2. Read the book, “Nonviolent Communication” (Rosenberg)  (see our article about cultivating emotional awareness]
  3. Practice contemplative prayer or centering prayer.  This path may appeal more to those with monotheistic religious beliefs, and the practices come out of the mystical branches of Christianity, and ultimately stem back to guidance Jesus provided, for instance, in Matthew 6:6.  See Thomas Keating’s, “Open Mind, Open Heart” for more.
  4. Read literature or well-written history (see this NY Times article about the benefits of reading literature)
  5. Write as if you were a writer of fiction about past events or how you imagine future events transpiring (e.g., see “Sources of Power” (Klein) and the above NY Times article).  Write as if you and other people were characters in a novel, and don’t worry too much about the polish or execution of your prose.  Get into your mind and the other character’s minds — what do they want?  Why would they have acted that way?  Have you ever felt that way?

Editor’s note:  This is our latest article in a “book club” series inspired by John and Julie Gottman’s book, “And Baby Makes Three.” Previously, we wrote about “4 ways to thank your loved one” and in the next article, we will explore ways to escape an out-of-control, rancorous argument before either one of you gets too hurt. 

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