Empathy: the ‘Secret Ingredient’ in Relationships

A common response people have when asked what they want to focus on or improve in marriage or couples counselling is often communication. While this might seem to be a reasonable goal, the term is so general and broad that it is neither descriptive nor helpful. As a counsellor, you’re left wondering if by “communication” they are referring to active listening skills, conflict resolution strategies, assertive statements, non-verbal communication, etc.? In truth, they may be referring to all of the above.

In my career as a therapist working with people hoping to create healthier relationships in their lives, there is one element that seems to link and weave through all of the usual communication skills and strategies. It’s what I’ve come to view as the ‘secret ingredient’ in relationships, and that is empathy. It’s that quality, intention and emotion that should always be present and practiced in our most important relationships. It’s the one element that provides a special “flavouring” making our connections distinctive and meaningful.

Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the capacity to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. In contrast, sympathy is to feel sorrow or pity for a person’s condition.

Empathy is not about trying to fix a situation for someone or make things better. Empathy is, as researcher and author Brené Brown describes, simply “feeling with people.” Empathy is the ability to relate to what the other person is going through by tapping into your own experiences. This doesn’t mean you have to have lived through the exact same circumstances. You simply have to know what it feels like to be sad, hurt, or scared, for example, and then communicate and share this understanding with the other person.

But this is not always easy. Sometimes the hardest thing to do in a delicate situation with a person is simply to be fully present, listen deeply, and be emotionally connected. And being empathetic also doesn’t mean agreeing with them, rather it means understanding what it must feel like to be them at the moment.

Some principles to keep in mind when being empathetic are:

1. Focus on the other person – this is about them, not you;

2. Take their perspective – try and see the situation through their eyes;

3. Suspend your judgment – this is their experience, not yours;

4. Understand and validate their thoughts and emotions – let them know you hear them and that they’re not alone;

5. Just be there with them – you don’t have to fix or solve anything.

When we experience an empathetic response it “fuels connection” between people, as Brené Brown says, and creates closeness in our relationships. On the other hand, a lack of empathy in intimate relationships can create distance and judgment, which may ultimately lead to a more disconnected relationship.

By giving and receiving empathy in our relationships we understand how good it feels to be seen, heard and accepted. So, next time we are working to improve our communication, let’s remember to sprinkle in some empathy in our interactions to really make them exceptional!


  • Andrew Gustainis

    Andrew is a dedicated mental health professional providing assessment, intervention and case management to youth, adults, and families presenting with a wide range of psycho-social, interpersonal and relational issues. His specialty involves relationships, parenting, family violence, anger management, grief and trauma with a specific focus on youth and men in crisis.

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