The ability to understand the feelings of another is significant to the success of interpersonal relationships. However, when we attempt to empathize with others we often make a fatal error that often leads to misunderstanding and at times hurt feelings and conflict. In a more intimate relationship when this pattern is repeated it can have significant eroding qualities contributing significantly to the demise of the relationship.
What is this fatal flaw? Well, assuming that you are listening to both the FEELINGS and CONTENT of what is being said the fatal flaw comes in your attempt to understand how the other person feels. What is often done is that when we attempt to understand how another person feels about a circumstance is that we put ourselves in the other persons shoes and then we ask ourselves how we would feel in that circumstance. Certainly a noble effort, but it misses the mark often in that we as human beings react to circumstances in different ways from one another. To put this another way, I may not react in the same way you do to the same situation. This is because of our past experiences, our world view, and our perspective on the situation. Hence, the potential for misunderstanding.
A more effective approach is to;
1. Listen for both the feeling and the circumstances surrounding those feelings.
2. Identify the feeling, the more specific the better, it is helpful also to be able to understand the intensity of the feeling being expressed.
3. Ask yourself, when have I felt that way and if possible, to that degree?
4. Take your own feeling that you now have identified and put yourself with that feeling into the circumstance that the other person is talking about.
5. Communicate this understanding to the other person using your own words to describe the feeling about the circumstance.
The reality is that most of us have experienced the full range of emotions that people have. Most likely not to the same degree with each emotion but certainly we all know what it is like to be scared, happy, excited, annoyed, irate or content. If we can pull that feeling out of ourselves and use that experience to identify with the person who is communicating with us, we stand a much better chance at really understanding how that person is feeling about the situation. We also can begin to really empathize with those who are most important to us. When we communicate this empathy, we go a long way towards demonstrating that we care.