Empathy is a key emotion in building healthy, vibrant, mutually enriching relationships.
In Part 1, we described empathy as a form of love, a gift of our presence to actively listen, to emotionally connect, and to provide a holding place that shares the intensity of another’s experience. We also said that, consciously or subconsciously, empathy stems from certain intentions. It doesn’t stop there, however.
Actions are an essential part of expressing, giving and receiving love. Action seals the deal; and this is the topic of this post.
Without action, the best of intentions have no meaning, in other words, as if they never occurred or existed. Relationships are living entities, and they require certain actions to remain alive. If not backed by thoughtful action, intentions are well meaning at best, however they are not the real deal. Real love is expressed by actions that consciously seek to meaningfully connect, that is, to nourish and grow, create and energize more life.
(It works the same way in the physical world. If I say “I love my plants” for example, yet take little or no regular action to keep them nourished with light, water, nutrients, etc., the words alone are empty, as if they were not spoken.)
In fact, the best measure of our true and deepest intentions is always: action, behavior.
(When we get defensive, for example, our body is in survival mode because from our vantage point [belief system], we perceive another’s feelings or actions as threatening, and thus our main or only intention is to protect ourselves. It is impossible to empathize when we are in survival mode; our body is simply not designed to operate that way. It’s akin to typing on your computer’s keyboard when the computer is off; it’s not going to respond to your requests, commands, wishes!)
Certain actions follow naturally from the intention to empathize. These actions, when genuinely expressed, allow us to share the “load” or intensity of certain feelings — whether of pain or joy. In a sense, the presence of an empathic person provides a holding place from which to create new and empowering meanings and understandings of our experiences of life.
In interactions with a loved one, your body’s autonomic nervous system is designed to take you in one of two directions, depending on your overall intention in the moment — fear or love. Having mixed feelings is natural, however: What is your prevailing aspiration and yearning? Do you most aspire to meaningfully connect (foster deeper understanding in our communication) or to protect yourself to restore your sense of safety and comfort (build walls to defend yourself and position from a present “comfort zone”)?
Whereas empathic intentions form a foundation or overall attitude, certain actions naturally flow and seal the deal, so to speak, expressing the sincerity of intention to meaningfully connect.
There are at least 7 actions, and here are the first three:
1. Choose actions that say you care.
When you or your partner want to discuss a sensitive issue, thoughtfully choose actions that say you care. This sets the stage for conscious talking and listening. This requires you to consider both general ways and specific ways to convey you care to your partner. General actions are bids for connection that warm the hearts of all human beings, such as pausing what you are doing, i.e., putting down the newspaper down, turning off the TV, and so on, to express your intent to give your full attention. Another great way to say you care is to be thoughtful of each other in terms of time and place. If the present time does not work for both, make sure you pause and take a few moments to consider, and agree on a time and place that works for both where you will not be disturbed, to prevent distractions as much as possible.
Specific actions, on the other hand, are ones that say you care to get to know and love your partner as a unique being. What have you learned thus far reaches or calms your partner’s mind and heart, body and emotion-drives, when they are upset or triggered? (Yes, it’s likely what is most difficult, scary or uncomfortable for you to give…) Keep it simple to avoid overwhelm. For example, start by agreeing (perhaps in writing) to use or avoid certain words, voice tone or gestures, that make it easier for both to feel safe enough to engage authentically? Such actions say that, though it’s not easy, you want to see and value your partner as separate from your own fears and concerns, and thus that you care and are interested to know their concerns, what promotes their sense of happiness and well being, and so on.
2. Use body language that conveys you are present.
The language of the body is emotion, period. And thus, like it or not, you cannot keep the thoughts you’re thinking secretly to yourself! If you are ruminating on thoughts about how awful your partner is, and what you’re lacking because of them, your body is sending those emotional signals, and thus , though they may not be cognitively aware, they know deep down where it matters. You may think you can disguise or deceive the other, ultimately, your body speaks the truth, and keeps sending a stream of emotional signals to the other that say how you really, really feel. Another way to look at this is that, if your approach or posture is defensive in any way, that means you are afraid and perceive them (their thoughts, feelings etc.) to be a threat. This only makes sense to your “logic mind” if you consider that our greatest fears have to do with what blocks us from mattering for our unique contributions, from meaningfully connecting — and these are intimacy fears, such as fear of inadequacy, rejection, abandonment. Whenever a loved one gets triggered in a conversation, unless you know how to remain empathically connected to your self and the other, you are likely to get triggered, and thus feel and mirror back the fear in return. (By the way, if you think your ability to remain aloof, uncaring, cold, detached is proof that you are not afraid, think again. If your defense strategies are activated, your body is scared and you’re simply pretending you’re not, based on a limiting belief you’re holding.) In other words, that’s why discussions on sensitive issues are challenging! The chances are high that if one gets triggered, the other cannot be present for them. Instead both get triggered, feeling blocked, rejected, inadequate in getting the love, understanding they aspire, and so on.
Changing your thoughts is only one way to send different, more optimal emotional signals (i.e., relationship building ones) to one another. You can also achieve the same result (shifting your emotional state of mind and body) by a change in your posture. Even when you may not “feel” like doing so, consciously turning to face one another, making eye contact, and relaxing your facial muscles with a slight smile, can instantly calm you — and thus also communicate that you are interested, ready to listen, to be present. During your conversation, in addition to eye contact, an open posture and facial countenance, other actions, such as moving closer, nodding your head, reaching out to touch the other (if you know that is what they need, not you), and so on, can also increase and restore an emotional sense of safety, by expressing interest and optimism, belief and hope, compassion and understanding, among other core yearnings we all share in common.
3. Stay focused on your voice and breath to remain present.
Your voice and breath are vital tools, always available to help you remain present, empathically connected. Naturally, voice is body language; however, it deserves special attention, as it transmits 80% of the meaning you communicate, beneath the words you speak, in the form of emotion! Voice says a lot about what emotions you are feeling, what you really want and yearn to realize. This means the same is true of the loved one you are listening to, who’s expressing a concern, frustration, or problem they’re facing. By not allowing your body to automatically activate your defenses, you allow yourself to remain empathically present to support the other to process their upsetting emotions.
Connecting to your breath is also key to remaining in the present moment, where you can be relatively calm, confident and centered, thus, in a place where you can make optimal choices, and more easily avoid taking things personally and getting triggered. When you get anxious, the first sign is shallow or interrupted breathing. Connect to your breath and practice deep breathing throughout a difficult conversation. If possible, and you both agree, take a minute to breath together prior to talking. Breathing is key to healthy living and wholeness and successful relationships. Deep breathing has been shown to have a tremendous healing effect on the mind and body. It is a fast and easy way to calm yourself, remain centered in the present moment, and feel relaxed even when discussing a painful or stressful topic. Peace of mind is often just a breath away.
Consciously connect to your voice tone and breath, as well as the voice and breath of the other. Remaining aware of your voice and breath, allows you to use them consciously to navigate your way through challenging conversations. Literally, if you do not feel safe, your signals will likely trigger the other or intensify their already triggered state. Staying connected, to the power (choice) you have to consciously calm your voice and breath, helps your body and brain remain in learning mode, where you feel overall safe enough to stay connected to higher thinking process, making optimal choices, and so on, rather than in protective mode where your survival response takes charge and activates defensive strategies.
In Part 3, four more actions of empathic listeners.