As humans, one of our most profound needs is to feel understood and heard. We want validation that they were listening to understand, not necessarily to fix the problem. Empathetic listening provides the validation and understanding we desire.
Think back to a time when you felt genuinely heard by your spouse. How did that feel? One of the best listening tools we can acquire is empathy. Empathy is the willingness to feel with your partner and understand their inner world.
Brené Brown beautifully describes empathy in this short animated video.
It’s Not “Fixing” the Problem
Having empathy is easy when our partner is happy. However, it can be much more challenging to access it when your spouse is hurt, sad, or angry. More often than not, we resort to sympathy. Sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity without “putting yourself in their shoes.” It is a disconnected way of listening to each other.
The problem with listening with sympathy rather than empathy is that this type of response can invalidate the other person. Sympathetic listening centers around trying to help “fix” the problem.
How Can We Listen with Empathy?
As the listener, here are four skills to help you listen with more empathy.
Remove Preconceived Ideas and Judgements
The first step to empathic listening is to remove any preconceived ideas or judgments about your spouse’s feelings or needs. In other words, you take it personally. When this happens, you listen and judge your spouse’s experience in an attempt to protect yourself.
Empathetic listening demands your full focus on your spouse’s message. Listening on this level will create healing and bring you closer together. It helps your spouse feel heard.
Find the Feelings of the Matter
This is where many couples get stuck. They argue over who is “right.” In most cases, both people see that they have valid points.
Rationalizing hinders empathy because it invalidates emotions. Instead of getting swept away in the facts of what happened in the heat of the conflict, concentrate on your spouse’s feelings. Listen to what they need to engage in empathetic listening.
Meet Them Where They Are
Sympathetic listening is tossing a rope down, while empathic listening is climbing down into the hole with them. It is meeting your spouse in their hurt or sadness and showing them you feel what they feel.
If you struggle with empathic listening, one way to improve is to ask questions to help you understand why they are feeling the way they do. It will make it easier for you to empathize with their experience.
Summarize and Validate
When summarizing how your spouse feels, use phrases that communicate that you respect their perspectives and feelings as natural and valid. Some examples might be:
“Of course, you feel…”
“It makes sense to me that…”
How could you not feel…”
You are not abandoning your perspective by validating your spouse’s. Empathetic listening communicates that you understand why they have those feelings and needs.
Empathic Listening Takes Practice
It is easy to get caught up in taking complaints personally and preparing to defend ourselves. It is much harder to listen empathetically. However, once you realize that deep longing is behind every complaint, it becomes easier.
Instead of trying to change or fix the feelings of the person you love, focus on connecting with them on a deeper level. Climb down into the hole with them instead of tossing them a rope from the top.
“Empathy lies in our ability to be [fully] present.” – Marshall Rosenberg
Eagle Family Ministries builds upon Biblical principles that help couples achieve the marriage they always wanted. We offer many avenues to equip couples, including relationship coaching and Christian Marriage Conferences for couples.
How has empathetic listening helped your marriage? Let us know in the comments.