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Empathy: A Key Relationship Skill

By Drs. Rick and Jan Hanson

My husband and I communicate well enough on the surface, but I feel we are drifting apart deep down. I for one don't feel like he understands me that much any more.

The basis of emotional closeness in a relationship is empathy, the foundation of the experience of "we" rather than just "I" or "you." If you sense that your partner really feels how it is for you, you feel less stressed, plus closer and more trusting, and more inclined to give empathy to him - and the same is certainly true for him with regard to you.

Fundamentally, empathy is a skill, like any other, and you can get better at it. And much the same, you can ask your partner to get better at it, too! Plus, getting better at empathy will only help a person become a better parent.

Emotional Imagination
Empathy is not agreement or approval. It is simply understanding, the intuitive sensing of another person's underlying feelings, wants, and psychological dynamics - looking at the world from behind the other's eyes. "What would I be feeling if I were him or her?"

Empathy is the expression of four basic skills:

  1. Pay attention

  2. Inquire

  3. Dig down

  4. Double check

Pay Attention
Attention is like a spotlight, illuminating its object - and you can get better at attention in several ways:

  • Calm yourself.

  • Consciously choose to give your attention over to your partner for a time.

  • Just listen, without developing your case against what the other is saying.

  • Keep the focus on the other's experience, rather than on circumstances or beliefs or ideas.

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