This is the audio recording of the first reading of week six of Start, entitled A Hidden Relational Superpower.
“Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something, and has lost something.”
In 1938, Harvard University launched the Harvard Study of Adult Development. It is one of the longest and most thorough examinations of adult life ever conducted. The study followed a total of 724 subjects for an astounding 75 years, frequently checking to ask about their life satisfaction and physical health.
The study revealed a wealth of information about what leads to a happy and fulfilling life, but one finding stood out: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Test subjects who reported being closer to their family, friends, or community were generally happier than less social subjects and had better physical health.
Happiness, of course, is complicated. But the research from Harvard and others is clear: We are happier when we are in community. The challenge is that building and maintaining life-giving relationships as adults is complex. Relating to others in a healthy and mutually beneficial manner is a skill, and many of us are out of practice. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
This week of Start will explore one skill critical to healthy relationships: empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When we empathize with another person, we put ourselves in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Psychologist Paul Bloom defines empathy as “The process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain.” Empathy helps us cooperate with others, build friendships, and help those struggling.
The word “empathy” isn’t found in the Bible, but the concept is prevalent. Paul tells us in Romans 12, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15) 1 Peter 3:8 says, “Finally all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” In the gospels, numerous snapshots highlight Jesus’ ability to understand the emotions of others. Mark 6 says Jesus “had compassion” on a large crowd he saw (Mark 6:34). He showed deep concern for the material (Matthew 15:32) and relational (Luke 7:12-15) needs of others.
Empathy is important because humans have an innate desire to be heard and known. We want others to understand us and care about our feelings. People who are lonely or disconnected are at a higher risk for a number of deviant behaviors. When we are understood and cared for, it creates connections that make deep relationships possible. People who demonstrate empathy tend to be more memorable, likable, and trustworthy.
Psychologist and best-selling author Daniel Goleman calls empathy “The fundamental competence of social awareness.” Empathy, in short, gets us out of our heads and forces us to think about the feelings and experiences of others.
Practicing empathy also helps us avoid behaviors that harm relationships. Empathetic listening puts us in a posture of seeking understanding, so we are less likely to offer correction or try to “fix” someone else. Empathy helps us avoid becoming argumentative because it trains us to focus on hearing another person’s heart rather than analyzing their words to see if we agree with them.
We do not need to have identical experiences with someone to feel empathy toward them. Empathy is less about relating to someone’s specific experience and more about connecting to their emotion. For example, we can empathize with someone who is afraid by remembering our experiences with fear. Pastor and author Thomas C. Oden calls empathy “An imaginative act, an engagement of the compassionate imagination.”
When this kind of compassionate imagination is present in a group environment, it increases safety and vulnerability. When those who are present know they will be met with empathy and compassion, they are more willing to share openly and honestly. That sort of communication is vital to group health, which is a big part of what makes empathy so important.
A specific way we can show empathy for others is through practicing validation. Validation is the act of helping someone feel heard and understood, and most people are starving for it. In a world of near-endless communication options, we, as a species, have grown adept at communicating our thoughts and feelings and reacting to the thoughts and feelings of others. We have become less adept at listening carefully to the thoughts and feelings of others. Technological mediation has only decreased our ability to validate, as so much communication happens via screens and devices.
Validation is not complicated, but it is the secret sauce to fulfilling human relationships. When we validate someone, we recognize and affirm the validity and worth of a person’s emotions. Effective validation has two components: 1) It identifies a specific emotion. 2) It offers justification for feeling that emotion.
Every day we are surrounded by opportunities to validate others. More often than not, people who vent and complain aren’t looking for solutions to their problems. They are looking for someone to listen to them and see and appreciate what they are experiencing. We do precisely that when we practice validation.
Jesus was a validation expert. Throughout His ministry, He met people where they were and “saw” them in a manner that showed His care and concern. He saw (and validated!) real needs and made people feel welcome at His side.
Even though validation is simple, it doesn’t come naturally to most of us. It’s easier than most realize to invalidate people around us. Consider the following invalidating and validating responses to these statements:
“My sprained ankle really hurts.”
Invalidating: “Well, at least it’s not broken.”
Validating: “I’m sorry to hear that. It must be so frustrating.”
“I had a really stressful day at work today.”
Invalidating: “Me, too! Three of my clients were late, and another blew up at me for some reason.”
Validating: “That sounds really hard. You must be exhausted.”
“My son is out of control today. His behavior has been crazy!”
Invalidating: “You should reduce the screen time he gets and see if that helps.”
Validating: “That sounds really rough. I’ll bet it’s exhausting to be home with him on days like that.”
All the “invalidating” examples are things kind and caring people say with the best intentions. Unfortunately, research has shown that those types of responses worsen problems and cause relational disconnection rather than connection. Notice how the validating answers keep the attention on the original speaker and either directly or indirectly validate the emotion shared.
Types of Invalidation
There are many ways we can, intentionally or not, invalidate others. This list contains a few of the most common:
- Minimizing- Sometimes, in an effort to help people feel better, we try to help them see that things could be worse. This rarely, if ever, helps another person feel better. Instead, it communicates that their emotions are invalid. This is what happens in the first example above.
- Changing the subject- When we hear someone sharing an experience, it’s natural to relate what we hear to our own experience. The problem comes when we change the subject from what someone has shared with us to what we want to say to them. This is what happens in the second example above.
- Advice-giving- It’s too easy to fall into the trap of advice-giving when someone is seeking our validation. If someone is sharing a problem or frustration, it’s natural to want to “fix it.” This is what happens in the third example above. Great listeners focus on validating rather than fixing, and they only advise if asked.
How to Validate
Validation requires careful listening. Great listeners listen, seek to understand, and then validate intentionally and specifically. Validation does not require agreement. You don’t have to agree with what someone is saying to validate them. As long as you can relate to the emotion, you can validate it. For example, it is possible to validate someone’s frustration by saying, “I understand you are frustrated,” even if you think the source of their frustration is trivial. Here are some simple techniques to increase your ability to validate:
- When listening, give brief verbal responses. Simple words and phrases like “Okay,” “Uh-huh,” and “I see” can help show someone that you are listening to them.
- Use body language to show you’re paying attention. Sit or stand in a posture that shows your attention is directed toward the person speaking to you. Make regular eye contact and avoid looking at screens or other distractions. If you are talking while engaging in some other activity, stop and make occasional eye contact if possible.
- Remain present. Giving someone our sustained attention can be difficult in a world of endless distractions. If you catch your mind wandering, gently refocus your attention on the conversation.
- Ask clarifying or follow-up questions. Asking good questions shows active listening and is an excellent way to show someone that what they say to you matters. This can be a great alternative to changing the subject.
- Repeat back what you heard. Once someone is done talking, talk back to them in a manner that shows you have listened to what they have said. This can include repeating the words you’ve heard or acknowledging the emotion you’ve sensed (“Wow, you seem excited!”, “Oof, that must be frustrating!).
These tips may seem small, but over time they make a world of difference in our sense of connection with others. Environments of validation are generally also environments of trust, care, and friendship.
- How would you define empathy in your own words?
- How natural is empathetic listening for you? What makes it easy or difficult?
- How does it feel when someone else validates your feelings? How naturally do you validate others?
Goleman, Daniel; Goleman, Daniel; Goleman, Daniel; Boyatzis, Richard; Boyatzis, Richard; Boyatzis, Richard; McKee, Annie; McKee, Annie. Primal Leadership, With a New Preface by the Authors (Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence). Harvard Business Review Press.
Oden, T. C. (1989). Pastoral Counsel. Crossroad.