Most of us can remember a time when we felt like the person we were talking to didn’t understand what we were trying to say or frankly, just wasn’t listening. Feeling misunderstood or unacknowledged can be incredibly frustrating. It even has the potential to lead to an argument, \fuel misunderstandings, and create barriers in your relationships.
Feeling misunderstood leaves each person feeling unsupported by the other and possibly even angry. For example, maybe you are upset because they have been nagging you about getting new tires on your car for weeks now. You feel like they are micromanaging your life and don’t trust you. That’s a situation that can easily lead to disagreement.
Both of you are likely to walk away from this conversation upset and further apart rather than close together. Add several of these conversations together and you can see how resentment and anger might start to build between you because neither of you understands the other’s point of view.
So how can you prevent these types of misunderstandings from happening? Empathy.
Empathy is defined as understanding how another person feels. It’s making the effort to see their point of view on something and letting them know that you understand how they are feeling and what they are saying.
What if you learned they keep reminding you to get your tires changed because they had a friend who got into a bad accident because their tire treads were worn down? You might not be as annoyed because you understand better why they are so concerned about getting the tires changed. They care about you and your safety and getting new tires is their way of making sure you are safe. The trouble is, if you don’t talk about your concerns and feelings with them, and instead assume you know what he or she is thinking, the misunderstanding will continue and the resentment will grow.
This is why empathy is helpful for increasing understanding and strengthening any relationship. But it’s particularly useful for those who are dating because it opens the lines of communication to create a deeper level of knowledge of the other which leads to emotional intimacy. (If you are looking for more information about empathy and how to use it, Dr. John Gottman, a relationship expert and psychologist, wrote Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work which has a section about how to develop the skill of empathy.)
Using empathy is a helpful way to improve communication and prevent misunderstandings. In the tire example, showing empathy would mean asking the other person to explain why they are responding to this specific circumstance the way that they are.
Then both parties would actively try to understand the emotions behind the other’s actions. It is important to know that empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is sharing a feeling with someone else. For example, if someone is grieving for a relative who recently passed away and you feel sadness when they are telling you how they feel, you are experiencing sympathy. Empathy, on the other hand, means you understand how the other person is feeling, but you do not have to agree with them. This is a key point. Empathy does not necessarily mean agreement. Empathy means understanding.
Think of empathy as stepping into the other person’s shoes and seeing the situation from their viewpoint. Ask them to share their reasons for why they are reacting a certain way. Try to identify what emotion they are experiencing and what their reasons are. Then, let them know you understood their point of view by rephrasing it and identifying whatever emotion they are feeling. And finally, its helpful if you share with them why you are feeling and reacting a certain way.
Using empathy is so powerful because each person in the relationship feels heard, understood, and valued. Which makes it easier for both people to collaborate in solving the problem at hand rather than escalating the issue. Even if you don’t agree on an issue, the understanding that comes with empathy can help avoid hurt and miscommunication.
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