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Empathy: The Validator

In order for conflict to actually draw you closer and create more intimacy, it is important to feel and express empathy and understanding when someone shares something with you. When your spouse approaches you with a conflict, truly listening and understanding, validating them, and feeling genuine empathy, will go a long way toward deepening intimacy.

Empathy

Look at Jesus. Luke 7:11-16. He is walking into town and there is a funeral passing by. When Jesus sees the mother of the dead young man, "his heart went out to her." This phrase actually means, in the Greek, "his guts were moved." God cares. Jesus cares. God calls us to care. He calls us to connect with one another on a gut level.

How to Get There: Validation - Listen by using RACE

Good listening includes several essentials: Reflect what you heard, Ask questions to seek true understanding, Confirm with them what you're understanding, and then Empathize with them. And while you're doing all that, make sure you are facing your spouse and looking at them.

Before giving direction, one last thing is important to understand. Understanding someone, validating their hurts and concerns, is not agreeing with them. Something someone says can be valid and understandable and you can still disagree with them. Often, what keeps people from expressing that they understand where someone is coming from is because they feel as if they're saying the other person is right. Validating someone, however, is not saying "you're right" or "I was wrong". It's actually not about facts. It is about saying that it makes sense, that you can relate, and that what they are feeling is important to you.

So now, let me explain what to do.

Reflect

When someone shares how they feel with you, the first thing to do is tell them what you heard them say. Just simply say it back. "So, when I said that, you felt...." Don't interpret or analyze it. Just let them know, using their words, what you heard.

Ask

When you've got your explaining, defending, fixing, etc. under some level of control (use your shelf, explained in another entry), it is time to ask some questions.

Prov 20:5 says:

"The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters; but a man of understanding draws them out."

Darn. There's that understanding thing again. Is 58 says you'll have to spend yourself. There's the cost again of Prov 4:7. Prov 20:5 challenges us to draw others out. One of the best ways to do that is ask questions. Put all those words swirling around your head up on the shelf, and ask some questions so that you can really understand. I always recommend asking on 3 different levels.

1) Ask Facts - when did it happen, where. Also, what was it in your voice, tone, body language, words, or timing that was difficult.

2) Use their language - ask them to further explain the words they chose to describe how they feel. "When you say hurt, can you tell me more what you mean."

3) Draw them out. You probably know each other well. Ask things like, "Did it seem like...." or "Did it feel like.... "

Ask questions until you truly feel you get a decent understanding of what they experienced.

Confirm

Much like the first part, Reflect, confirming is giving them their own words back, but now in expanded form. You asked a number of questions to deepen your understanding. Now you let them know fully what you heard from those answers. "So, when I said that you felt... and my tone was... and it seemed like...." Finish by checking, "Did I get that?"

Empathize

This is time for you to literally put yourself in their shoes. In order to go from cognitively understanding how someone feels to getting it at a gut level, it often helps to remember when you've felt that way. If someone says, "I felt unappreciated", ask yourself when was a time you felt unappreciated. This is a tough one to get because we often think, "but my situation was not the same." True. Your situation is never the same. However, what we often have in common is the gut level response to situations. When someone treats you in a dismissive way or scolds you like a child, or dismisses the incredible effort you put into something, it twists the gut. It can make you feel angry, hurt, and unimportant. So, to empathize with your spouse and what they felt, think about a time when you felt that way, not with them, but with someone else like your boss, a co-worker, your sibling or friend, your mom/dad/grandma/grandad, someone in your ministry. What happened? Where were you? What did you feel? When you recall your own experience, you are now able to say, "I think I can understand." And now share that memory, keeping your sharing short.