Did You Hear What I Meant? A Little Effort at Empathy Makes a Big Impact on Relationships

By Tiffany Sands

"Every good relationship, especially marriage, is based on respect.
If it's not based on respect, nothing that appears to be good
will last very long."

Amy Grant – American singer-songwriter, musician, author, and actress

Every day at work we talk about the customer relationship and how to demonstrate respect. We stress the importance of acknowledging the customer's feelings by listening and expressing empathy. Since everyone is our customer, we apply these behaviors to our employees, our co-workers and our managers.

As a result, we have all seen the difference that this can make on our professional relationships. The question is, "Do we apply this to our closest personal relationships?"

A Fun Ride Gone Wrong

A few years ago, my husband and I took our then two year old daughter to a popular theme park. It was her first time visiting the park and she was extremely excited. Very early on in the day, my daughter and I got on a ride that was meant for children in her age group while my husband sat on the sidelines to take pictures. I think that since this was a ride "for her," I felt comfortable enough to sit back and enjoy the ride. As the ride began to spin a little faster, my daughter slid out of the seat next to me and hit her head. After a rush to the emergency room and sixteen stitches, my daughter still has a visible scar above her eyebrow.

Shortly after the accident, I said to my husband, "You should've gone on the ride with her." And my husband responded, "It's too late now. Don't worry about it." While my husband's response was accurate, it only addressed my words, not the emotional message behind the words. In reality, I blamed myself for the accident. I questioned my ability to protect and care for my daughter. Deep down, I wondered if I was even a good mother at all. My husband's response didn't acknowledge those hidden feelings. As a result, those feelings stayed with me for a long time after that.

When I went through the MAGIC® program, I realized what was missing from that interaction. I needed to feel that my husband understood how I felt, even if he didn't agree with it. What was missing was empathy.

Impact of Empathy (or Lack Thereof)

Harvard University recently did a case study in which they researched the impact empathy can have on a relationship. They found that when our partner perceives us making an effort to be empathetic, this results in higher levels of relationship satisfaction. These findings suggest that the perceived effort of being empathic, not just the accuracy of the statement, can have a positive impact on relationships.

Often, people do not think about expressing empathy in their personal relationships. We are so close to them that it is easy for us to become defensive in our response. In reality, how we respond determines how they will respond in turn. This will either damage or reinforce the relationship.

Think about this—have you or your partner ever said the one of the following statements or something similar?

  • "You're going out with the guys again?"
  • "You never discipline the kids. I'm always the bad guy."
  • "I don't want to go to your parents' house for dinner."
  • "You never help around the house."
  • "You went shopping again?"

Now it is easy for us to respond defensively to the above statements because they may seem like a personal attack or some type of criticism. For instance:

  • "I never get to go out with the guys!"
  • "You never give me the chance to discipline the kids! You're always yelling at them!"
  • "Well you have to go otherwise you'll hurt my parents' feelings."
  • "What are you talking about? I just did the dishes last night!"
  • "Every time I go shopping you have to give me a hard time!"

From experience we can probably guess how the rest of the interaction will go. An argument may ensue, the silent treatment may be given, and someone's feelings will likely be hurt. Thus, distance has been created in the relationship.

A New Approach

Next time your partner approaches you with a statement or question that may seem like a criticism, take a moment to consider your response. Remember that while the words seem critical, there is an emotional message that your partner is communicating. Tap into that emotional plea with an empathic response.

In our first example, our initial reaction was to defend our reasoning for "going out with the guys." It is a possibility though that the emotional message was, "I miss you and I want to spend time with you." So, respond to that message by saying something like, "You must really miss me. We should plan an evening together for just the two of us."

In our second example, our initial reaction was to find blame for our lack of discipline. Our response though did not acknowledge the emotional message, "I'm tired of being the bad guy and concerned how that affects my relationship with the kids." We can respond to that message by saying something like, "I can understand that it's tough to be the one disciplining the kids, and you might be concerned about how they feel about you. Let's talk about what I can do to support you."

Remember, even if you do not accurately read the emotional message, the Harvard case study proved that as long as your partner perceives you making an effort to understand his/her emotions, there is a positive impact.

Little Changes Make a Big Difference

Looking back at our family vacation, my husband and I both now recognize that an effort at empathy can go a long way. If this effort was made, it likely would have caused me to open up with my true feelings of responsibility for the incident.

If you take the time to be respectful and acknowledge the emotions of those closest to you, even if they may not be completely obvious, you have an opportunity to decrease your stress, find more joy in life and reinforce your most important relationships. And as the opening quote demonstrates, with respect and a little effort, everything that is good will last a very long time.

Tiffany Sands is a Service Trainer based in Phoenix, Arizona with First American Home Buyers Protection. Tiffany is an experienced facilitator who is certified in the MAGIC® of Customer Relations and MAGIC Coach.

Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.