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How to Be Empathetic in a Relationship

by Lauren Mills

“Put yourself in my shoes.” It’s easy to see things from our own perspective and become wrapped up in our daily triumphs and struggles. Sometimes it’s more difficult to see things from the perspective of another person, even in a close relationship. Empathy is the act of understanding and sharing the feelings, thoughts and experiences of another person. It may sound simple, but empathy is a vital part of human connection in relationships.

Empathy in Romantic Relationships

Empathy can increase relationship satisfaction.

Displaying empathy with romantic partners can lead to more fulfilling relationships. In a study published in the “Journal of Family Psychology” in 2012, researchers found that partners’ relationship satisfaction increased when they perceived that their partner was making an effort to read what they were thinking and feeling, regardless of the level of accuracy. By striving to key in to your partner’s emotions, your partner will likely feel supported.

Empathy in the Workplace

Empathy is a quality of successful leaders.

Empathy not only has a place in a competitive workplace, but can also help you get ahead. According to William A. Gentry, Ph.D., and colleagues in a report for The Center for Creative Leadership on empathy and job performance, empathy was positively related to the success of both employees and managers. Demonstrating understanding of others may inspire other employees to work hard through showing appreciation for their needs and talents.

Empathy in Families

Caregivers help teach children empathy.

Teaching empathy begins in early childhood when caregivers respond to a child's needs and emotions. Children continue to develop empathy when they see parents and siblings modeling it. According to studies reviewed in the “Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools,” the result is that youth with the capacity for empathy are more likely to exhibit pro-social behaviors including helping others and giving back to society.

Fostering Rewarding Relationships

Empathy can lead to healthy relationships.

Honing your empathy skills can help build these stronger connections with significant others, co-workers and family members. The key factors to empathic interactions are listening, understanding and communicating. Actively listening means that you try not to analyze or judge what is being said, as well as listening without interrupting or formulating a response. Understanding involves stepping into another's shoes -- whether you agree or not -- and asking yourself, “If I were in this situation, how would I feel?” To facilitate communication, repeat what you heard being said in your own words and then ask if you understood the meaning correctly. If you sense underlying feelings that are unspoken, communicate that, too. If you feel that empathy is lacking in your relationships and are having difficulty practicing it on your own, it may be helpful to consult a mental health professional for additional information and support.

About the Author

Lauren Mills, L.C.S.W. is a licensed psychotherapist and mental health writer with a private practice based in New York City. She has extensive experience providing psychotherapy to children, adolescents, adults and families. She holds a Masters of Science in clinical social work from Columbia University.

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