When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air. ~ Stephen R. Covey
Deep relationships dont happen by accident. They are created when partners develop profound empathy for each others feelings. This involves more than knowing about your partner – his/her favorite food, what he/she likes to do for fun, or what his/her history is. It takes authentic, caring, patient communication to become keenly aware of his/her feelings. It means taking off your shoes and trying on your partners. Or as Bob puts it, walking a mile in my high heels.
So what exactly is empathy? Often people confuse empathy with sympathy. Expressing sympathy means letting the other know you recognize their distress with compassion. For example, Im so sorry you are in pain. I feel bad for you.
Empathy goes deeper and shows that you can actually imagine his/her feelings and perceptions through his/her eyes. For example, I sense how much pain you are in. It is very intense. You feel with him/her not just for him/her.
The path to empathy is through communication; listening to thoughts, the logical, rational message; and listening to feelings, interpreting the meaning of your partners message. Empathizing with your partners feelings takes one to a deep level of knowing and understanding his/her internal frame of reference or perception.
Think of perception as an individual pair of eyeglasses; we each have our own prescription. When you remove your eyeglasses and put on your partners, you view the situation through his/her lens. This is the essence of empathy. And its difficult to achieve.
Actors prepare for their roles by developing profound empathy for their character. For his role as President Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis spent a full year reading and thinking about the president, sent text messages to his cast mates as “The Commander in Chief” and on set refused to allow discussions of current events. Sally Fields who played Mary Todd Lincoln gained 25 pounds for her role.
Actor Edward Norton says, Ive always thought of acting as more of an exercise in empathy, which is not to be confused with sympathy. Youre trying to get inside a certain emotional reality and trying to figure out what thats about so you can represent it.
The payoff for developing profound empathy is enormous. Working to understand and become sensitive to your partners feelings creates the strongest bond a relationship can have. It creates a safe harbor and protects your relationship and family.