Empathy in the Face of Vulnerability: Responding to Authentic Communication

Last week on the blog, we talked about a formula on how to communicate authentically about your feelings with people in your life: “I feel _________ about/because of ____________, and what I need is __________.”  In light of that, it seems fitting this week to take a look at how to respond when you’re on the receiving end of this style of communication.  How do you respond when someone expresses difficult thoughts or feelings to you?

For most of us, it is unusual for someone to communicate emotions directly and in an assertive way like this.  We can feel insecure or uncertain of how to respond.  We want to be empathetic, but sometimes we worry that our words will be trite or dismissing.  Or maybe we’re uncomfortable with the fact that they shared this information with us in the first place, and managing that discomfort takes all of our attention.

We tend toward a few possible ways to respond when someone approaches us to share their emotions.  In general, we can be uncomfortable around negative or painful emotions.  We might avoid painful emotions in our own lives, so seeing or hearing someone express an emotion vulnerably might lead us to put pressure on ourselves to put a positive spin on it.  Or we can become defensive, particularly if the emotions being expressed are in response to something we’ve done.  Perhaps the person’s vulnerability in sharing feelings or needs from us require us to apologize or identify changes we need to make in our own lives.

What holds you back from responding with empathy?

Ultimately, expressing emotions and responding with empathy to others is vulnerable, in that we have to connect with uncomfortable or painful emotions inside ourselves in order to understand them in others.

In order for us to truly empathize with someone else, we have to step into their shoes and look at the world through their perspective.  We may not fully understand, as we may not have had the same experience in our story.  But as they share emotions of anger, sadness, fear, or hurt, we can look at ways we’ve felt those same emotions before to get a picture of what they’re going through.

Brené Brown, a well-known researcher on shame and empathy, briefly explains the difference between empathy and sympathy here:

I love how she underlines the idea of “silver-lining” someone’s pain – looking for the “at least” or the message.  In Christian circles, we can sometimes jump too quickly to platitudes like “God works all things together for good.”  While that does hold truth, it can silence any emotion or pain the individual is experiencing.  True empathy creates space for emotions to be felt.

How have you tried to “silver lining” someone’s pain?

In relationships, John Gottman talks about the importance of validating one another’s perspective in order to create intimacy.  Couples in conflict tend to get stuck in push and pull arguments that become battles to win or lose.  Slowing down and engaging in this practice of empathy rather than seeking to make your partner feel better or stop feeling the negative emotion creates intimacy in your relationships.

Take time to validate your partner.  Validation involves responding to another’s expression of feelings and experiences in a way that communicates you understand or you can see from their perspective.  In so doing, you don’t necessarily have to agree with them.  For example, your partner might interpret you forgetting to take out the trash as disrespecting him or her.  Even if that wasn’t your intention, you can still respond by expressing that you understand that feeling and how it might have affected them.  This diffuses the tension, as your partner will likely feel more heard and understood.

Here’s some examples of validating responses:

  • I can see why you felt this way.

  • I understand how my actions communicated that.

  • It makes sense to me why you responded that way, knowing what you were thinking and feeling.

There is no perfect response here: you can’t say any magic words that will instantly fix any problems you have in your relationships.  But the more you are able to validate and empathize with the experiences of others, the more likely you are to build strong relationships where your loved ones feel safe sharing difficult emotions and experiences with you.

“Rarely can a response make something better.  What makes something better is connection.” – Brené Brown

At Restored Hope, we know relationships can be messy.  Whether you’re noticing conflict in your marriage that feels like a battle between winning and losing, or if you’re having trouble empathizing with others around you because of difficult emotions in your own life, I’d love to talk with you and support you in your desire for authentic relationships. Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based therapy office where I focus on skills and strategies to improve your relationships, as well as gain greater insight into your own emotions and needs.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with me today.