Empathie gemeinsam üben

When is it appropriate?

According to Marshall Rosenberg's non-violent communication approach, we can automatically defuse pretty much any conflict or attack if we manage to empathize despite all the accusations. This form of communication has helped me in many situations, but there have also been moments when I realized in retrospect that I may have been too empathetic for too long.

This article is about what I mean by empathic questioning, when it is appropriate in my experience and when it is not.

What is empathic questioning?

Empathy has become a popular topic. I have already written a lot about how important it is to practice empathy, especially in relationships.

Empathic questioning is about going into connection with someone by asking questions that are supposed to help you and the other person to better understand their situation.

So, you try to imagine what the situation must be like for the other person and ask him or her whether your assumption is correct.

Empathy creates space for others and their needs

With empathic questioning, you have an assumption about what might be going on. You share this assumption with the other person and ask whether you are right. Here is an example:

Person A: "The constant driving gets on my nerves."

Person B (asks empathically): "Are you tired right now from a long car ride?"

Person A: "Yes."

Person B: "Do you wish you didn't have to sit in the car so often and for so long?"

Person A: "Yes."

Person B: "Would you like to have more energy when you finally get home? Would you like to spend some quality time with your family in the evening?"

Person A: "Yes. I just think it's a shame that we have so little time together during the week and that I can't be as present as I would like to be."

Empathy defuses the conflict

This example makes it easy to see how a potential dispute situation was automatically defused by one person asking the other questions about how they felt. She wanted to understand better, and together they were able to explore the background to the frustration in more detail.

In the vast majority of cases, this strategy of "creating space" leads to a constructive and in-depth conversation developing from a negative feeling. Empathy and the search for connection is particularly important when raising children, as it helps the child to better understand their own feelings. But also, in contact with dissatisfied customers or employees at work or when talking to parents, friends or your partner; showing empathy actually always helps.

Staying empathetic is not always easy

It is often more important to remain empathetic in the most provocative situations. This also takes the wind out of the other person's sails. At the same time, empathy helps to ease the tension in yourself, because if you stay with the other person with your questions, you don't take things personally.

Empathy needs practice

Especially in situations that trigger us, it is difficult to show empathy. I also notice this in myself. The more personal a conversation becomes - let's say I'm directly criticized by someone - the quicker I go on the defensive. Later, I realize that the situation would have been easier resolved with empathy.

So, empathy takes practice, because for the vast majority of us it has never been our normal way of interacting. We are more used to taking things personally and going on start to defend ourselves, give advice or fight back.

Stay empathetic with yourself too

During this practice process, you can also remain empathetic with yourself. You can calmly review situations that you missed and think about how you could do things differently next time. This prepares you. However, you shouldn't judge yourself. Sometimes you were triggered in the situation and this distracted you.

Can we also be too empathetic?

I hear more and more often, especially in relationships, that we can also be too empathetic. This means that too much one-sided empathy in a relationship can led to one person taking advantage of the other.

And yes, if we go back to the example of person A and person B, there could be an imbalance if person B is always trying to connect while person A is always complaining and not making space for person B as well. Especially in partnerships, it is important that there is reciprocity, because both are equally responsible for communication. (This is different for parents, who are always responsible for communicating with their children).

The problema is not empathy

Ideally, you should work on your communication together and read a text like this together and then practice asking empathic questions as a couple. But even if you are alone and trying to improve your communication, there is no danger in being TOO empathetic. The problem lies more in the fact that we confuse empathy with cooperation. Just because you're empathic doesn't mean you have to go along with everything. Trying to understand your partner's needs doesn't mean you're responsible for meeting them.

You can always remain empathetic

It's about creating space for the other person and defusing a potential conflict constructively. It's not about you solving the problem with empathy. Your partner is responsible for finding a solution. They can ask you for help, but then you also have your own needs and boundaries and can decide how you can and want to support them.

Do you want to work on your communication as a couple or are you having doubts about how the communicating with your partner is going? Then you are welcome to contact me and we can discuss this topic in more detail in counseling.