Connection via empathetic understanding is the real connection between two people and is the most endearing act of love and honor which one can present to another. This connection is the most meaningful part of any relationship. You know it. You remember when you’ve felt it. When your friend finishes your sentences, when you’ve had a strong bond with a teacher or mentor, you felt connected, understood.
You know this. Yet, surprisingly, I see a lack of empathetic understanding as the underlying indicator of trouble ahead in the most important relationships, between lovers. Maybe you felt a connected and/or understood in the beginning (though that was likely a more powerful driving force than connection) but after a while, you realize that the connection you felt was simply you projecting your desire to be connected and understood onto your partner.
When you’re in the projection mode, you see everything interpreted through your special lens which is rose-colored and sees synchronicity in all things. Following the passing of time, things that used to be “cute” are becoming annoying, and you’re no longer feeling as though you are connected or understood, as you once thought you were.
When you’re projecting your feelings onto your interpretation of another person, you feel as though they are feeling your feelings, even when no such connection exists.
It is this feeling of another’s feelings that Stephen Covey refers to as his, “Habit number 5: Seek first to understand then to be understood” in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This is the connection which exemplifies the highest integrity and connection between two people, whether used in business relationships, or more importantly, at home. It is a powerful connection which promotes and deepens respect, trust, and intimacy.
This simple method of joining the worlds of two people into a united vision felt by two is the secret of the most successful relationships. Sometimes it just happens organically, and the two people don’t even know they are doing it. For the rest of us, we need to first understand the concept before we can even think about attempting such a thing. And it’s on you to proactively take the first step.
Understanding is not giving advice, being over-protective, or fixing things for another person. Empathetic understanding is simply the process of actively listening, inviting them to dig deeper, and even more deeply, until they have gotten it all out, while you are using your imagination to feel what it might be like to be in that other person’s shoes, empathizing with him or her.
If you’re unaccustomed to this higher level of listening, it may take some practice. Creating a safe and sacred atmosphere can be an important component when someone is sharing something close to their heart, so eliminating distractors, such as the TV, music playing in the background, or retreating to a place where more privacy can be established are excellent ways to honor your partner’s sharing.
Nodding your head and looking them in the eye indicates you’re listening, while you are resisting your inclination to interrupt or interject when they are sharing. Let them speak their piece and listen carefully. When they pause, simply try to restate what they just said in your own words, starting with, “Let me see if I get what you’re saying…”
Then ask them if there’s anything more they’d like to say about that? And let them continue. Repeat this as many times as necessary, until they’ve announced that’s all they have to say.
Rather than give in to the urge to counsel or help him or her fix something your partner is concerned about, after first imagining what he or she might be feeling, feeling it as though you were feeling them yourself, offer up validation of your partner’s feelings. Something like, “Wow, you must have felt devastated.” And allow them to either agree with you or reclarify what they are feeling about what they were sharing. If they reclarify, imagine what it would feel like from that perspective.
If you have different opinions about something like your partner was terrified by a ride at the amusement park and you found it exhilarating, you can validate your partner’s feelings while agreeing to allow each other the right to their own experience. For instance, you might say, “I can feel how terrified you must have been on that ride,” (empathy, and continue) “but I was having the time of my life.” It’s okay to have different points of view, but very important to deeply understand where your partner is coming from and honor them by allowing them to have their experience any way they want to.
If they’ve intimated their story to you devoid of feelings, it might be helpful to lightly probe and encourage them to share their feelings by simply asking, “How did that make you feel?”
I think you’re ready to take your relationship to the next level.