Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. As such, it would be a main building block of any relationship. Neuroscience informs us that 98% of people have this ability wired into the brain, but practice falls short of that high percentage. Why?
How did any of us discover this ability anway? Do you remember your parents, or your teachers, saying things like: “Now Sally, give your brother a hug. He hurt is knee. Help him feel better.” So although we have an inborn capacity, it is one that has to be activated as a positive way to behave. When it is reciprocated, it gets reinforced over and over. And as an adult, we respond to the feelings of our partners and loved ones, creating a shared reality.
One of the most common communication issues is when you feel a certain way, and the other person tells you not to feel that way, or questions the veracity of your state of mind. I am willing to bet that this has created more arguments and resentment in every relationship. I am angry, and I am told, hey, that was no big deal, why are you yelling? You can guarantee that I am not going to stop the irritation but become more aggravated because now you are denying my feeling. The key to strengthening the partnership lies in taking a moment and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. We are capable of doing this, if we take a deep breath and give ourselves the chance to move away from our own mindset. It is harder to do this in the heat of an argument when we want to prevail. But especially in that situation, what is more important to you? That you win the argument, confirm that you are right, or that you have a stronger relationship? It may be easier to feel empathy when we are not necessarily ego-involved in what has created the partner’s feelings — say, when he/she has failed an exam or suffered a loss.
The dynamics of empathy lie in the sense of shared feelings that bring people together. Can we enhance or reinforce this ability? We can. The first step involves active listening to what another person is saying, or to be present to their statements. Repeating what you have heard often eliminates misinterpretation and allows the other to experience being understood. Additionally, take advantage of your brain’s curiosity section. As you order your coffee, wonder about what the barista might be thinking. Consider what the life of the mechanic who fixed your car might be like. Chat with a stranger who may have held a door open for you. These are all minor instances that add to the bucket of empathy. Danial Goleman of the EQ or emotional intelligence fame has said that without empathy, a person would be “emotionally tone deaf.” And that would definitely not contribute to a healthy and happy life and relationship.
As a psychologist in private practice since 1979, Janan Broadbent, Ph. D. offers individual, couples, group and family therapy, in addition to conducting workshops on topics such as stress management, communication skills and assertiveness. She writes about current issues relevant to relationship building and conflict resolution in LGBTQ and minority populations, with emphasis on health, fitness and education.
Born in Turkey, Dr. Broadbent earned her undergraduate degree in psychology in 1965. At that time, first as a Fulbright Scholar, then as a CENTO Fellow, she received her master's and doctorate degrees in psychology and education from the University of California at Los Angeles. She has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in psychology at St.Mary's College of Maryland, Mt. Vernon College in Washington, D. C., Johns Hopkins University and the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore. From 1981 to 1988, she was also the Director of Counseling at Notre Dame College.
While in graduate school, Dr. Broadbent worked for the Voice of America radio program, writing and recording materials on the cross-cultural college experience. She has been interviewed on various news programs on TV and has received media training.
Dr. Broadbent is a member of the American Psychological Association and has served as the chair for the Public Affairs Board and as a member of the Executive Council of the Maryland Psychological Association.
Dr. Broadbent's office is located at:
Village of Cross Keys, 120 West Quadrangle, 2 Hamill Road, Baltimore, Maryland 21210-1847 phone: 410-825-5577