6. Facilitating Empahty - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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6. Facilitating Empahty

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > DownRelRabbitHole- Assessment

Down the Relationship Rabbit Hole, Assessment and Strategy for Therapy

When one person expresses in a manner that exposes his or her vulnerability, he or she is seeking an empathetic response from the other person.  Either or any person can listen without any true attention.  Couple therapy can become two partners each simultaneously doing separate monologues for the therapist with neither actually listening.  Or, several family members offering discourse on separate channels.  An individual may "listen" to therapist feedback, prompts, or interpretations with similar disconnection.  Listening may mean little more than silence to allow the other person to finishing flapping his or her lips!  A person indicates this after a long discourse by the therapist, the other partner, or a family member by asking, "Are you done?" essentially meaning "Have you finished talking so I can now speak?"  This would be in marked contrast to responses as indicated by Berger (2006) that indicate caring and investment the partner's words and state of being.  "…greater satisfaction might result from the signaling qualities of communal behaviors (i.e., that you care about your partner's welfare); from an increase in partner's happiness in response to your behaviors; from dissonance reduction associated with the effort you have expended; from feeling good about living up to an ideal (by following a communal norm); and from a comforting sense that your own needs will be attended to in the future" (page 54).

When individuals- in particular, partners or family members are committed to aligning with each other's well being, they are normally positively involved in each other's experiential and emotional worlds.  Unfortunately, some couples, families, or groups such as work teams are well out of sync with one another.  Rather than seeking alignment, the individuals in the dyad or community may seek to assert the primacy of his or her views.  This is illustrated in the following couple's case.  After Ida spoke about the broken door that had not been repaired in two months, Humphrey would begin his response spreading both hands out in an expansive gesture and say, "The fact is…"  That introductory phrase or similar openings such as "The truth is…" "What really happened was…" indicated Humphrey has not listened in order to understand his partner.  His attention was to details that could be argued.  This is based on his assumption that the facts of the matter are what really mattered!  Disputing her reality and presenting his "truth" was his urgency and Ida's experience, especially her emotional experience was lost to him.  Ida likewise listened carefully to Humphrey, ready to pounce and take over the conversation if she heard a slight pause or break in the words.  Each partner listened intently, focused on finding flaws in logic or memory so that he or she can effectively dispute the other partner.  Ida and Humphrey listened like opposing attorneys in an adversary system primed to destroy the testimony and credibility of the other side.  

The therapist needs to prompt each individual to listen to the emotional content of the other person's words.  Speculation, interpretation, challenges, and offering alternatives serve this process with an individual in therapy who is speaking of someone outside therapy.  In or out of session, the therapist should redirect the individual or each partner or family member away from distracting minutia and to the feelings underlying words and behaviors.  Each person needs to be repeatedly guided to understand and identify with or relate to each other or the other person.  The therapist may ask, "Forget about the facts.  What is (was) he or she feeling?"  Or, the therapist may redirect the focus saying, "Forget whether he or she is right or wrong.  If he or she (your partner or family member) thought that happened or it meant that, how would he or she feel?  If you thought that, how would you feel?"  Relationship destroying logic holds that misinterpreting or mis-experiencing the facts or interactions wipes out ones right to have any resultant feelings.  The therapist is purposely separating the "facts" from feelings.  It may be useful to point out that babies cry "irrationally" all the time.  They will get fed, will get comforted, and the scary sound won't hurt him or her.  Yet, caring people do not dispute babies' feelings because babies have misinterpreted the facts.  The fact is that adults can also misinterpret the facts for many reasons.  The key "fact" is that strong feelings can result and have resulted.  "Do you understand how he or she (or your partner or family member) would feel hurt?"  This may become a more impactful intervention if the therapist uses more assertive language, "You would be hurt too if that's what you thought it was about.   Can't you relate to that?"  Unfortunately, the answer to the last question might be "no."  

Empathy is more than feeling another person's feelings.  Empathy for another requires a person to be first connected with his or her own feelings.  Empathy or feeling with another person means experiencing or relating and identifying with the other person's feelings in a manner that ignites the same or similar feelings inside oneself.  Empathy therefore is essential to successful receptive communication, in particular to the emotional message sent by another person.  Key to empathy then is a person's ability to fully experience, including tolerating his or her own feelings.  If some feelings are too intense, painful, and evocative of past trauma, then a person may unconsciously, semi-consciously, or consciously deny his or her own feelings.  Since connection to one's own feelings is essential to experiencing another person's feelings, inability to tolerate one's own feelings can preclude the possibility of empathy.  For example, if a person has experienced intimacy abandonment that has resulted in an inability to tolerate emotional despair, he or she will have difficulty letting another person's emotional despair ignite his or her feelings… again.  In their relationship, Rona often felt emotionally abandoned if not actually abandoned by Sam.  Despite this, she made the marriage work by giving Sam much of what he wanted and needed although he couldn't express it.  Sam had learned to quell his loneliness through years of practice and lots of beer.  Not consciously experiencing or feeling his own loneliness, he could not understand or feel Rona's feelings of abandonment when Sam went AWOL on one of his binges.  Rona cried out, "Don't you know how I feel?  To be alone and not knowing where you are?"  Sam really did not know how his partner felt because he did not feel himself.   

Sam and Rona represent what seems to be a common pairing in couples in therapy; one partner who is very emotionally self-connected and also highly empathetic matched with the other partner who is emotionally disconnected with self and poorly empathetic.  The highly empathetic partner- Rona in this pairing may have been able to maintain the relative functionality of the relationship by intuiting and anticipating his or her partner's feelings despite the non-emotionally expressive and self-connected partner (Sam in this case).  The more emotionally functional partner will make various accommodations to maintain the relationship however marginally.  When accommodations start to fail or frustration mounts because invested energy remains unmatched by the emotionally disconnected partner, the relationship goes into crisis and the couple might come to therapy.  Each partner may need to explore how much his or her family models and/or cultural training support being introspective and being connected to ones feelings.  The therapist can work with each partner individually with the other partner watching.  Experiences and behaviors are examined to help the individual connect with and then, express his/her vulnerable feelings.  This may be relatively simple if the individual is comfortable enough and connected with his or her vulnerable feelings as it would be with Rona.  Or, it may be complex clinical work with all the challenges of individual therapy with an emotionally closed off client such as Sam.  Getting someone like Sam to connect with his own feelings is a prerequisite to Sam having empathy for Rona or any other person in may be in an intimate and occasionally conflictual relationship.  Some therapists may attempt to train Sam in active listening where Sam is to restate, in his own language, his impression of the expression of Rona.  Sam is to focus on "getting" Rona and her expression rather than interpreting from his perspective.  Unfortunately, partners who can readily do active listening seem to not to be in the couples that present for therapy!  And, those who come to couple therapy essentially seem to be there because they cannot do active listening, and may not be receptive to being taught active listening.

"Gottman says, (regarding ineffectiveness of active listening) So I've got to really change - real empathy comes from going:  'You know, I understand how upset you are.  It really hurts me that I'm messing up this way, and I've got take some action.'  Real empathy comes from feeling your partner's pain in a real way, and then doing something about it" (Wyatt, 2010).  Feeling the partner's or other person's pain requires being aware of and owning ones pain.  However, some individuals, couples, or families experience feelings and especially, pain as competitive; winner take all and loser gets nothing.  In other words, one perceives feeling the other's pain as requiring giving up one own pain.  The therapist may need great clinical judgments and skills, to circumvent this competition.  The therapist can ask Sam how it feels to know of the Rona's pain.  This might direct him towards feeling empathy.  "It must be difficult for you to know this…" Or, Sam may be served with a direct challenge such as,  "You must have to hurt a lot to deny Rona her pain," or, "I can't believe that you chose to have Rona hurt like this."  By invoking and evoking the ideal self, the therapist directs Sam to have connection to himself as a means to connecting to Rona.  If someone like Sam still cannot connect to himself and then to another person, especially the partner, it is appropriate for the therapist to state directly, "Sam, unless you give Rona the right to feel… unless you feel with… unless Rona experiences you feeling with her… there cannot be connection.  You MUST find a way to get her."  The clinical challenge is to make this a directive as to the requirements of intimacy versus a critical demand of someone like Sam.

The therapist may need to evoke and challenge underlying familial or cultural limitations or expectations.  There may be significant restrictions or important models regarding how much one can own ones feelings and connecting to another person's feelings.  "If you have feelings like this or know Rona, your wife has such feelings, what are you supposed to do?  In your family?  From how you were raised?"  Discovery of family, social, or cultural edicts restricting empathic connect can take some of the heat off someone who has difficulty being empathetic.  Rather than Rona becoming aggrieved about Sam's inadequacy empathizing, the two of them can join in common grievance against his limiting cultural indoctrination.  It harms both of them.  Further joining may occur if the therapist points out the irony that both of them have injuries and want the same from the other—love and validation.  If both persons or partners, or all family members can express vulnerability and have it honored with an empathetic response, conflict resolution, coordination, and couple or family therapy becomes relatively simple processes.  Therapy or some problem-solving process moves towards clarifying and activating identification and more functional responses.  However, if facilitating empathy is difficult with one or both persons/partners, or all family members, the therapist may need to shift therapy to focus on what may be traditionally considered individual therapy.  Individual work, possibly within the couple or family therapy context to connect either or both partners or all family members to his or her internal process may be essential to enable the healthy inter-relational process of the individual, couple, or family.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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