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Discussion Starter #1
Could anyone direct me to a reference (link) for a definition of "empathy" that a marriage guidance counsellor would use?

I am currently seeing a marriage guidance therapist who argues that empathy is not "putting yourself [emotionally] in another person's shoes." Here is a transcript of one interaction that I had with him:

"one of the things that you have emphasized from the first session is this way you look at things … if you were in my shoes. You know. Mmm, and that's certainly a valid way to talk about things but its not the only way to … mmm … look at things. And, … mmm … what I sometimes see that as, as your way of trying to get the other person to adopt your point of view. And, its very hard to describe the difference but … mmm … first of all you're not and no one is in the other person's shoes ever and I'm not saying it is invalid to think about things that way but really what I think is really important is to … mmm … try to understand the other person in their shoes … that is what I think is important and I think … I think what you are trying to get at through that method is empathy … you certainly want empathy, if you were in my shoes, you want empathy, but I think in doing that you sometimes don't display empathy."

His logic seems circular to me [and I think that I should stop seeing him]. Isn't it circular to suggest that by asking for someone to see things from my perspective that I am not displaying empathy (I can see how this might be relevant if it is used in the form of an accusation, but in a general sense what is empathy but "walking in other people's shoes" (emotionally)?

If I have a blind spot about this, I would appreciate it if someone could help me to see it.

Thanks in advance!!
 

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According to the medical field empathy IS being able to see the other person for the individual they are and the situation they are in. It' s one of the four fundimental health care practices.

Empathy, benefecience, justice, malfecience

Which lead to DIPPS

Dignity, individuality, preference, privacy, safety

Get thee a new therapist, drop the quack.
 

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Discussion Starter #3
Thanks for the quick reply!!

When he came out with the "first of all you're not and no one is in the other person's shoes ever" I felt like I was back in kindergarten.

6 months down the drain ... ah well.
 

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I think your counselor is right. Your SO needs to feel compassion for what you are feeling and experiencing and will best"get it" by being in your shoes.

Empathy however is something that occurs between the two of you. It has to flow between the both of you. Its value actually lies in the differences between you. The greater the differences, the more one has to alter their own behaviors to connect with the other, the greater the effort expended and empathy achieved.
 

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Discussion Starter #5
Frozen,

Could you elaborate? I can understand your comment but I don't see how it relates to the counselor's comment.

The issue between my SO and me is the issue of empathy. I give an example where I displayed empathy, let's say with a health issue, and a similar example where they were not understanding. Is there another way to discuss empathy without looking at it through examples?

Thanks!!
 

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Splarty,

In the context, as I understand, you are trying to convey to SO how something makes you feel. The issue at hand is not important.

The counselor is suggesting that what you are expressing is a point of view, not a fact. The implication is that by forcing the other to see things from your point of view, you are invalidating theirs, and thereby obviating empathy on your part.

People can only experience life through their own eyes- by insisting to SO that you have to have A because of X,Y, and Z, you show a lack of empathy for the needs of SO in whatever it is the issue is about. Life is not black or white. Everything is compromise.

I am trying to explain without examples.

The definition provided by CantePe is misleading here in an intimate relationship. The counselor is pointing out that in your relationship, empathy must be maintained in 2 directions at all times. In the medical field we see empathy only flowing in one direction.
 

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Discussion Starter #7
frozen

Good. I am trying to work out if I have a blind spot, whether I am missing the point that the counselor is making. Given that you appear to be "in tune" with the counsellor, you can help me.

So, let me give you an example of an issue that I raised:

A simple example was with health issues that we had (not the same and at different times but the context was the same in that our doctors did not think that we needed further tests).

My SO came home spitting coals about the doctor, and I could see their point, when it happened to me a few months later their view was that doctors know best (ironic, but irrelevant, was the fact that it turned out that I did need the test).

That for me is as straightforward an example of an asymmetry in empathy as it gets, the counsellor seems to think my attempts to trying to discuss issues like that are me being demanding instead of me trying to understand (which I think is quite judgemental .. and am not sure how to address those issues without tackling them head-on).

So, if the context is common to both of us but the reaction is different, am I forcing someone to do something or trying to develop an empathetic relationship by asking my SO to look at things from my perspective and get their feedback?
 

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Wow, sorry this is a bit confusing. I think you are having a lot of trouble framing what the problems are.

Men all too often feel the need to solve problems, and will always try to be helpful by inserting what they would do or their take on the matter. This is the last thing a women wants, she merely wants for SO to know how the problem makes her feel.

In this circumstance, You want SO to display empathy by not trying to solve XYZ problem, but only to show Compassion for your circumstance.

Likewise, SO just wants whats best for you and you must understand SO is distressed over how you are being affected and is trying to be helpful. Unfortunately, he doesn't deliver what you need.

Is this correct?

Instead of insisting on someone seeing things from your shoes, redefine what you really want from them. Maybe its just an ear to listen, or maybe its some helpful suggestions. But if you are trying to make a winning arguement or other persuade another's opinion, it would be dominating to force the SO to place your preferences over theirs.
 

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Discussion Starter #9
"But if you are trying to make a winning argument or other persuade another's opinion, it would be dominating to force the SO to place your preferences over theirs."

That is an idea that I understand.

However, the simple fact is, I just want to start a conversation to understand their perspective. For me, that conversation starts by saying, "ok, here is something that happened to both of us, you felt this way (which you made clear by expressing it) but didn't appear to understand that I felt the same way" ... now let's talk.

The counsellor jumps in at this point, every time, to suggest that I am demanding something (which I don't feel is their role ... at least not without an explanation).

p.s. you have reversed the genders

[My concern is that the counselor is a bit of a control freak, who isn't playing with the full deck himself when it comes to empathy.]
 

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Its past my bedtime now so I'll give it another try. The counselor may be good or not, i can't say.

I Think the counselor is trying to get you to speak only what you think or feel. You should try something like, "when you said xyz I felt misunderstood. i was trying to convey i agreed with you. When I think you don't understand what in trying to say it is frustrating."

Don't say or imply what another is thinking or feeling.

i will follow up tomorrow
 

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Im a firm believer in empathy. I DO believe its about putting your feelings aside no matter what they may be at the time, to show compassion and caring for another person who needs it. My first wife didn't have empathy, I ended that marriage for various reasons, one being she couldn't and wouldn't try to have enough compassion for others. She was to self centered and involved in herself to be able to do so. Unless someone has been diagnosed with a mental disorder where lack of empathy can be a part of that, then chances are, its a learned behavior, one that can be unlearned, with the right kind of help. And if that person is willing to learn.
 

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Discussion Starter #12
Couldn't agree more!

In my opinion, asking someone to empathize is not demanding (with the obvious qualification that you too reciprocate). It is an important part of any relationship.

The idea that it has be spontaneous is also something that I find to be too idealistic. Obviously, it is better when it is spontaneous but there are always going to be times in life when you need a shoulder to lean on and at those times being able to ask for empathy is vital.

I also agree with you that it can be learned. In fact, I don't understand what marriage guidance counseling's role is if it is not to get each partner to "walk in each other's shoes [emotionally]". (Someone pointed out a book and DVD to me called "How Would You Feel? Learning Empathy" whose name suggests how a counsellor can approach the issue. There is only one condition in that approach, that the other person can understand the context (Example: How would you feel if you were in the North Pole with only a stick to survive? Is beyond most people's comprehension).

I think that people who respond that empathy is some mystical, unlearnable art are not being realistic (possibly defensive).

Thanks for your comment.
 

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I think empathy is about listening and hearing the other person. Making sure they know you just heard them and understand what they are feeling (their emotions).

My SO came home spitting coals about the doctor, and I could see their point, when it happened to me a few months later their view was that doctors know best (ironic, but irrelevant, was the fact that it turned out that I did need the test).
In this situation I feel that empathy is just listening to your SO vent about the doctor and telling her you can see that she feels angry and upset, maybe discouraged. Empathy would not be telling her at that point that you can see the doctors point and that the doctor knows best. That would not be empathetic.
 

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Discussion Starter #14
It is interesting that, initially at least, people jump to the conclusion that I am the one who is not empathizing with my SO.

In the example that I gave, it is pretty clear it is the other way around, no?
 

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Isn't it circular to suggest that by asking for someone to see things from my perspective that I am not displaying empathy...?
Splarty, I agree with you that your counselor's reasoning appears to be circular -- because he seems to be talking about two different types of empathy without distinguishing between the two. One type is called "cognitive empathy," which is the ability to perceive what another person must be thinking. The second type if "affective empathy," which is the ability to sense what the other person must be feeling.

This distinction is very important. Narcissists and sociopaths, for example, typically have no affective empathy but they may have a very high degree of cognitive empathy, which makes them more skilled at manipulating other people. In contrast, people with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) typically have both cognitive and affective empathy -- but they only have it intermittently because they are emotionally unstable. This is why BPDers oftentimes will display an astonishing absence of affective empathy -- but will exhibit it very intensely a week later.

I therefore suspect that, in asking asking for "someone to see things from my perspective," you were asking for cognitive empathy. And your counselor, in stating that you are "not displaying empathy," probably means to say you are not displaying affective empathy. That is, you are not sensing the pain and fear that, at this moment, is preventing your W from giving you the cognitive empathy you seek. This distinction is discussed online at What is the difference between cognitive and affective empathy? - Yahoo! UK & Ireland Answers.
 

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It is interesting that, initially at least, people jump to the conclusion that I am the one who is not empathizing with my SO.

In the example that I gave, it is pretty clear it is the other way around, no?
Yes, after re-reading that a couple times, I can see where I jumped to the conclusion that you were not the one who was showing empathy. Your SO, especially after having gone through the same thing should have seen your point of view and not sided with the doctors since your SO was obviously upset when this happened to them earlier. After empathizing with you, he/she could have started a conversation asking you how you felt about it and why you thought the doctors were wrong.
 

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Discussion Starter #17 (Edited)
Uptown

Thank you for your reply.

Interesting comment and thank you for introducing the topic of cognitive and affective empathy - I had never heard of the distinction and presumed that "empathy" was simply "affective" empathy.

It is actually the other way around: My SO has no problem with cognitive empathy but shows little affective empathy. That is what makes it so difficult and confusing for me: The therapist is saying that I don't show affective empathy in asking my SO to show affective empathy (i.e. I am not acknowledging how emotionally difficult it must be for my SO to be confronted with examples that highlight that she shows little affective empathy - that for me is circular reasoning, how will we ever get to that issue if they are the rules laid down by the counsellor?). Given that marriage guidance counseling is supposed to be where we can discuss these issues, under the guidance of a counsellor, I feel that, instead of simply stopping the conversation, he should "guide" the conversation in the direction of the issues that we think are important - minus some of the pain caused by emotional issues (by appropriate interventions during the "rough stuff"). Instead, those issues are simply taken off the table - with categorical statements, without explanation, like the one that I posted.

Thanks again!!

TryingandFrustrated

Fortunately marriage guidance is not performed on forums - i.e. it is easy for confusion to arise when all you get is one post with no other feedback. Obviously, I agree with your original comment - once the roles are reversed.

Thanks!!
 
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