Part VIII: Building Empathy, or, Practice Makes Permanent
If you have been reading this series, you have learned about using the nuts and bolts of effective couples communication in a way that promotes emotional growth; you’ve tried to get outside of your own persepctive and get curious about your partner’s experience; and you have worked on creating a safe environment in which you can discuss feelings in a non-reactive way.
Now it’s time to practice, practice, practice. In Harville Hendrix’s classic book, “Getting the Love You Want,” he talks about the Couples Dialogue exercise. It is basically a discussion of any topic that is an issue for the couple, using the tools of mirroring, validation, and empathy statements.
“I’m feeling frustrated and rejected that we’re not spending more time together.”
The partner mirrors back: “So you’re feeling frustrated and rejected that I’ve been spending so much time working in the evenings. Did I get that right? That makes sense – I can understand how you would feel that way. I would imagine you’re feeling like a low priority. Is there more?”
“Yes. This feels like a pattern of you finding things to do that take you away from spending time with me.”
“So it seems to you that I have a pattern of finding things to do other than spend time with you. Did I get that? I can see how you would feel that way. I’d imagine that makes you feel rejected.”
At this point it’s the listener’s turn to speak. The listener does not need to defend or respond directly to what has been said, but just to say whatever is on their mind at this time. The other partner then makes statements to mirror, validate, and empathize.
Practicing this exercise trains you and your partner that speaking about feelings or concerns is not threatening, dangerous, or unduly difficult. It is simply a normal part of maintaining and developing your relationship. So, we are using simple communication tools not only to address communication issues, but also to build trust and empathy, and to deepen the relationship.