A Key Relationship Skill
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.
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:
• Pay attention
• Dig down
• Double check
Attention is like a spotlight, illuminating its
object - and you can get better at attention in
• 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
Empathy is a process of discovery. You study what
is under one stone. Then you ask an open-ended
question, such as the ones below, that turns over
Can you say more about ___________?
How was it for you that ___________?
How do you feel about him/her?
What do you mean when you say _____________?
What’s your gut feeling about __________?
What do you think about ____________?
What is really bothering you?
What are you concerned they’ll do?
What was the most upsetting part of all that?
What do you wish would have happened instead?
How was this like ____________ [i.e. some similar
thing] for you?
The personality is layered like a parfait, with
softer and younger material at the bottom. The
• Tries to get a sense of the softer feelings -
hurt, fear, or shame - that are usually behind
anger or a tough facade.
• Imagines the insecure, scared, suffering person
behind the other’s eyes.
• Wonders how childhood and other experiences
could have affected his or her thoughts, feelings,
and wants today.
• Considers the underlying, positive wants - e.g.,
safety, autonomy, feeling valued – the other is
seeking to fulfill, although perhaps in ways one
• Inquires gently about the deeper layers -
without trying to play therapist. This must be
done carefully, usually toward the end of a
conversation, without making it seem like the
here-and-now elements in what the other is saying
are unimportant, especially if they are about you.
When we receive a communication, we need to tell
the sender, “Message received.” Otherwise, he or
she will tend to keep broadcasting, ever more
powerfully, in an effort to get through. Try
questions like these:
“Let me say back what I hear you saying. Are you
saying that ______________?”
I’m not sure I fully understand this, but is it
Is the key point that ____________?
Is it correct to say that you felt ___________?
So one part is _________, another part is
_________, and a third part is __________, right?
The Rewards of Empathy
With a better idea of the feelings and wants of
our partner, we are more able to solve problems
together. It’s like dancing: a couple shines when
each person is attuned to the other’s mood and
rhythms and intentions.
Additionally, when our partner feels understood,
he or she is more willing to extend understanding
in turn. Once pure survival needs are handled, the
deepest question of all in any important
relationship is, “Do you understand me?” Until it
is answered with a “Yes,” that question will keep
troubling the waters of any the relationship.
But when understanding is continually refreshed by
new empathy, connections are constantly re-knit,
strengthening the fabric of the relationship.
(Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a
clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson, M.S., L.Ac., is
an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are
raising a daughter and son, ages 15 and 18. With
Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the first and
second authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother’s Guide
to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate
Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see
their website at www.nurturemom.com or email them
with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org;
unfortunately, a personal reply may not always be