This is the companion technique to the one I describe in “How to Pick a Fight” where you express appreciation and an “I-statement” when you have a bone to pick with your beloved.
Developing Medina’s “empathy reflex” (along with the techniques I describe in this post) will reduce the hostility in your marriage. It will also have another important benefit: Practicing empathy with your partner will help you raise a compassionate child.
Children do what we do, not what we tell them to do. For example, if you have a child who tends to be defensive when she’s arguing with her siblings (as I do), it’s probably not going to be all that effective simply to say to her “don’t be defensive,” when she’s doing it.
It will be more effective to model other ways of reacting to conflict (namely, by accepting at least some responsibility when your co-parent or spouse accuses you of something).
So when you’re on the verge of a heated argument with your partner (or your children, if they are older), take a step back and make a real effort to understand where your partner’s coming from—what he or she is feeling, and why he or she might be feeling that way. Then, as carefully and sensitively as you can, try to convey this to your partner (I’m sure he or she will correct you if you are wrong).
You’re boosting the odds that your children will eventually develop this same reflex with their siblings and friends, with you, and, yes, maybe even with their future spouses. This “empathy reflex” is at the heart of compassion, because it primes us to both see other people’s suffering, and put ourselves in a position to help them.
© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
This article originally appeared in Greater Good.