Empathy: A Key Relationship Skill

Empathy: A Key Relationship Skill

My husband and I communicate well enough on the surface, but I feel we are drifting apart deep down. I for one don’t feel like he understands me that much any more.

The basis of emotional closeness in a relationship is empathy, the foundation of the experience of “we” rather than just “I” or “you.” If you sense that your partner really feels how it is for you, you feel less stressed, plus closer and more trusting, and more inclined to give empathy to them – and the same is certainly true for them with regard to you.

Fundamentally, empathy is a skill, like any other, and you can get better at it. And much the same, you can ask your partner to get better at it, too! Plus, getting better at empathy will only help a person become a better parent.

Emotional Imagination

Empathy is not agreement or approval. It is simply understanding, the intuitive sensing of another person’s underlying feelings, wants, and psychological dynamics – looking at the world from behind the other’s eyes. “What would I be feeling if I were him or her?”

Empathy is the expression of four basic skills:

  • Pay attention
  • Inquire
  • Dig down
  • Double check

Pay Attention

Attention is like a spotlight, illuminating its object – and you can get better at attention in several ways:

  • Calm yourself.
  • Consciously choose to give your attention over to your partner for a time.
  • Just listen, without developing your case against what the other is saying.
  • Keep the focus on the other’s experience, rather than on circumstances or beliefs or ideas


Empathy is a process of discovery. You study what is under one stone. Then you ask an open-ended question, such as the ones below, that turns over another.

  • Can you say more about ___________?
  • How was it for you that ___________?
  • How do you feel about him/her?
  • What do you mean when you say _____________?
  • What’s your gut feeling about __________?
  • What do you think about ____________?
  • What is really bothering you?
  • What are you concerned they’ll do?
  • What was the most upsetting part of all that?
  • What do you wish would have happened instead?
  • How was this like ____________ [i.e. some similar thing] for you?

Dig Down

The personality is layered like a parfait, with softer and younger material at the bottom. The empathic listener:

  • Tries to get a sense of the softer feelings – hurt, fear, or shame – that are usually behind anger or a tough façade.
  • Imagines the insecure, scared, suffering person behind the other’s eyes.
  • Wonders how childhood and other experiences could have affected his or her thoughts, feelings, and wants today.
  • Considers the underlying, positive wants – e.g., safety, autonomy, feeling valued – the other is seeking to fulfill, although perhaps in ways one doesn’t like.
  • Inquires gently about the deeper layers – without trying to play therapist. This must be done carefully, usually toward the end of a conversation, without making it seem like the here-and-now elements in what the other is saying are unimportant, especially if they are about you.

Double Check

When we receive a communication, we need to tell the sender, “Message received.” Otherwise, he or she will tend to keep broadcasting, ever more powerfully, in an effort to get through. Try questions like these:

  • “Let me say back what I hear you saying. Are you saying that ______________?”
  • I’m not sure I fully understand this, but is it like ___________?
  • Is the key point that ____________?
  • Is it correct to say that you felt ___________?
  • So one part is _________, another part is _________, and a third part is __________, right?

The Rewards of Empathy

With a better idea of the feelings and wants of our partner, we are more able to solve problems together. It’s like dancing: a couple shines when each person is attuned to the other’s mood and rhythms and intentions.

Additionally, when our partner feels understood, he or she is more willing to extend understanding in turn. Once pure survival needs are handled, the deepest question of all in any important relationship is, “Do you understand me?” Until it is answered with a “Yes,” that question will keep troubling the waters of any the relationship.

But when understanding is continually refreshed by new empathy, connections are constantly re-knit, strengthening the fabric of the relationship.

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

Get the Just One Thing
Weekly Newsletter

A simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

You can unsubscribe at any time and your email address will never be shared.