Making Sense of Empathy

A number of years ago my husband asked me to pick up the dry cleaning on my way home from work.  I replied “Sure.” He responded, “Please don’t forget, I need my suit.” (He knows I have ADHD so that reminder is nothing I typically take offense to).  So I verbally agreed to pick up the dry cleaning but IN MY HEAD, I thought “Wait, don’t you get home earlier than I do tonight? Why should I pick it up?”  Anyway, I proceeded with my day and went a little over session time with a couple I was working with and strolled into my house at precisely 7:05p. I was met with a questioning look as he saw my briefcase and purse in tow but my other arm lacked dry cleaning. He followed up with a loudly asked question (he is Italian so culturally I get some of the tone, the rest was pure anger).  “You forgot my dry cleaning didn’t you? I cannot believe you forgot it, I even reminded you!” In my head, my defenses were armed and ready to launch, and my response might have been:

  • Your tone of voice is very harsh. I simply just forgot. Am I not allowed to make a mistake?
  • It was an accident, not an intentional act against you.
  • As I recall you actually got out of work earlier than I did tonight.
  • You even pass the dry cleaners on your way home from work and I have to drive 2 whole miles out of my way!
  • You have more suits than any other man I know, why can’t you just wear one of those tomorrow?
  • I can’t remember the last time you asked me if you could pick up my dry cleaning–such a double standard!

If I had led with any one of those defensive responses, we all know where we would have ended up. Most of the couples I work with test this theory often and are met with the same result.

However, I had just ended my last session with teaching a couple the VUE.  Validate: Acknowledge their feelings. Understand: Let them know you understand why they are upset.  Empathize: Express sympathy. As a result, plus the realization that life is much smoother when I take my own advice, I actually responded with much healthier dialog:  

“Oh my goodness I am sooooo sorry, I did totally forget your suit.” I even further shared how awful my forgetting was by digging myself into a bigger, but healthier hole, “I know how important that suit was to you, your ‘lucky suit’ and I know that you really wanted to wear it for your presentation tomorrow morning. I also know that the dry cleaner is now closed and does not open till 7am, the exact time when you have to give your presentation.  I didn’t leave myself a post-it note (my ADHD’s best friend) or put a reminder in my phone and I should have done that. I really am sorry.”

At that moment I felt really proud of myself. I made no excuses, took total responsibility for my error and didn’t shift blame to him in any way.

His response: “Well it’s okay. I have lots of suits to choose from, thanks for saying all that.”

And we were done. No more loudness, no more bickering, we ended the night way more connected than 6 minutes prior.

Another thing to keep in mind, DON’T FAKE EMPATHY. It ends up being a huge passive-aggressive bomb and takes longer to clean up the carnage than not saying anything at all if your heart is not in an empathic place. I have spent longer in some sessions doing fake empathy repair than getting couples to feel any closer.

For some this is a really advanced skill. It’s very hard to do if you feel rooted in shame or have a lot of anger at your partner. If you feel like empathy is a next-to-impossible task, dive deeper into those areas and see what you find.

If you feel open and ready to give it a try here are some VUE starters……

  • I can see why you are (hurt, angry, sad, frustrated, etc.) because………
  • I get it, I totally blew it and I am truly sorry for……
  • When I put myself in your shoes I can better understand why……..
  • I understand why you feel that way because what I know about myself is……
  • That must be so awful to feel (disregarded, unimportant, forgotten about, etc.). I am so sorry for all the ways I contributed to that (even better if you go into great detail about your contribution)……

I teach couples the VUE often, it’s one of my top tools to aid in connection. I am always impressing upon my couples the importance of empathy. I truly believe it is one of the best gifts you can give your partner.

ADHD version

  • Don’t forget your partner’s dry cleaning.  If you do, take responsibility and use the VUE (Validate, Understand and Empathize).
  • Don’t fake empathy if your heart isn’t in it. Saying nothing is better than half-hearted tries.
  • Shame and anger are deterrents to true empathy.
  • Empathy done correctly creates connection.

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