Heartwise Relationships: The Glue That Holds Us Together

By Dr. Caron Goode

"The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy, we can all sense a mysterious connection to each other."  ~ Meryl Streep

Empathy, as the glue in relationships, helps us stick with the relationship when we feel it is time to escape, withdraw, deal with hurt feelings or harsh words. In the simplest sense, empathy is feeling what your partner feels or having the ability to walk in their shoes. With empathy we can understand when our partner needs to feel appreciated, think through issues, has to take action to release pent up stress, or needs touch to soothe hurt feelings.

When Linda and Jess came for relationship coaching, their caring for each other was clear in their holding hands. Also throughout the next hour of discussion, they wanted coaching support. Jess was a financial advisor and spent his day dealing with customers on the telephone, having lunches, a cup of coffee in the afternoon or visiting a client’s home. When he came home in the evening, he wanted quiet time, no interruptions and little conversation until he could decompress. Linda was completing a doctoral degree and attending classes, researching her dissertation and spending much time in the world of theory and applications. She looked forward to sharing her day when Jess came home. Her idea was to unwind together through conversation and with a glass of wine before sharing dinner together. They had tried retreating to their own tasks or space, but often indulged hurt feelings or thoughts of being misunderstood. They determined to understand how the other felt to learn how to be together harmoniously. Empathy was a tool for their success.

At a basic level, empathy is being tuned into your partner’s emotions and intentions. The next level of empathy involves taking action to help another, whether alleviating fears and pain or supporting or celebrating someone. Caretakers do this in their work. A child might reach out to comfort a parent. These actions are a human’s natural response pattern. More complex forms of empathy happen when join people together for survival of struggles or to pursue the vision fueled by emotional connectedness, showing how capable we are of making deep connections. The explanation for these connections comes with the discovery of “mirror neurons.”

We Are Hard Wired For Empathy

At the University of Parma, Italy, researchers found that when macaque monkeys observe another monkey or human perform an action like cracking a nut, the neurons that fire when the monkey itself performs the action also fires in response to watching another individual. Mirror neurons create a neuro-physiological link between one’s personal experience and that of another individual. Several studies confirm that when humans observe another person’s intentional action and/or emotional expressions, they activate brain areas that are also engaged when the person would perform the action or experience the emotion himself.

This neuro-imaging research changes the way we view ourselves and also what we value. When we are not responded to, we feel unappreciated, lonely, withdrawn. To feel loved, whole, appreciated and useful, we must be in a relationship where empathy connects us. We now understand that we are hard-wired to resonate with each other at profound levels, driving desires to belong and for bonding, connection, companionship, and affection. We are hardwired for empathy, and we share this trait with apes and other mammals.

The Empathy Process

Science tells us that all children are born with the capacity for empathy. What happens as we mature and grow up shapes our ability to be empathic as an adult; we might lose that ability to connect and feel.

Empathy is more than feeling pain or celebration; it is also connecting to another’s emotional intention. Babies demonstrate empathy in a global sense. If other babies cry, then babies respond with crying. By the time a child is 2 ½ years old, he or she has developed a self-identity and understands the feelings of distress belong to his playmate or parent or sibling. You will see preschool children empathize by reaching out to alleviate another’s distress through words or touch.

By age 8, a child understands the human plight of birth, death and vulnerability.
Children depend upon the demonstrations of responsiveness, warmth and empathy from the people in their world to continue cultivating empathy within themselves… or their ability to remain empathic is up for grabs. Assuming empathy continues to develop, then how do adults of different styles show empathy?

Jess and Linda observed that their needs at the end of the day were the opposite of each other. Since their goal in coaching was to stick together, empathy was their tool of choice. They knew that empathy clearly provides the closest they might come to “knowing” each other’s state of mind.

To enhance empathy with another, these strategies will help.

1.  Visualization, seeing internally, plays an important role in the empathic process and heightens the feeling.  So Jess explained his long hours of conversation and driving in traffic before he came home while Linda closed her eyes and experienced his stress.

2.  Linda asked Jess to model her experiences. Sit at her desk, spend time in silence researching and writing, and feel how such time in silence heightens her desire for companionship. Jess understood her need to hear a kind voice instead of his silence.

3. To remember their desire to stick together in times of tension, they agreed to be silent and spend the time together… walking, cuddling, and cooking together. The silence was helpful for Jess. The shared touch and activity met Linda’s need for connection.

Dr. Caron Goode is the founder of the innovative global online school, Academy for Coaching Parents International (www.acpi.biz), and the Heartwise Parenting series. She has authored 15 books in education, child development and parenting. As a psychotherapist and coach, Goode motivates clients to achieve their compassionate purpose in relationships.

Dynamic Living Magazine Issue Vol. 3  May/June 2011 The End