Delving into Empathy

Of all the skills necessary for vibrant loving relationships I think that empathy is the most important, yet I find it one of the hardest to define and to teach. The simplest way to look at it is think of it as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”   In her book, “I Thought it was Just Me” Brene Brown quotes Arn Ivey, Paul Pederson and Mary Ivey as defining empathy as “the ability to perceive a situation from the other person’s perspective.  To see, hear and feel the unique world of the other.”  Brown defines it as “the skill or ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us.”    For me empathy is something that happens without words, it is the resonance we feel when we look into someone else’s eyes and feel their joy or pain or bewilderment. 

While essential to the Imago Dialogue and indeed any profound communication, it is the hardest part of the dialogue to teach, and when it is not present people experience the dialogue as mechanical and forced.  When it is present people tend to experience the Dialogue as transformative.

I was therefore very inspired reading Rick Hanson’s recent blog post entitled “Hug the Monkey – Just one Thing.” Rick Hanson’s newsletter ,  part of the series he is posting sharing his favorite personal practices.  In it he shares a video put together by the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic that is one of the most powerful examples of empathy I have ever seen – and it is all done without words.    Take a few minutes to watch this lovely video On Empathy

Another favorite take of mine on empathy comes from Paul Zak’s TED talk Paul Zak on morality, empathy and Oxytocin, that looks at the impact of brain chemistry on moral behavior and the impact our choices make on our ability to experience empathy and trust.

Please join the discussion – how can we strengthen our empathy muscle? I welcome your insights into how we can develop empathy in our own lives and relationships.

Posted by Laura

Laura Marshall, LCSW, is the founder and director of the Sagebrush Center for Relationship Therapy. Her experience spans thirty years of supporting couples and individuals to create healthy and meaningful lives and relationships. She is also adjunct faculty for the New Mexico Highlands School of Social Work. She lives with her husband Steve and five sons in Farmington, New Mexico.

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