Great News about Empathy: New research shows effort matters more than getting it right

Great News about EmpathyIf you sit in a restaurant and look around sometimes you can determine who is married and who is still dating. A couple still dating hangs on each other’s every word, while the married folks sometimes stare off into space. Curiosity has died and empathetic understanding has come to a halt due to years of familiarity. We could explore the many reasons, and multiple causes for these rifts in relationships. But of greater importance, how do couples overcome this sorry state of perpetual grayness?

One of the fathers of counseling theory, Carl Rogers, defined empathic response as having two requirements: (1) it represents accurately the experience of another and (2) is communicated to the other person effectively.  An empathetic response describes the mental and emotional state someone else is experiencing, as we share it in some measure with them, and expresses our care and understanding in that moment. The struggle is that empathy can be quite difficult to put into practice. After a while, some couples stop trying to understand one another either because they think they already fully know their spouse (which is fully impossible) or they become disheartened when they do not seem to get it right.

However, a recent study has revealed a refreshing perspective on what really matters for couples is the sincere attempt to understand each other. Conducted by a group from Harvard and Bryn Mawr College and recently published in the Journal of Family Psychology, this study sought to understand the workings of empathy on a deeper level and found that couples felt more satisfied in the relationship with the perceived effort of their partner to be empathic than with the exact and accurate empathic response. “Findings suggest that the perception of a partner’s empathic effort-as distinct from empathic accuracy-is uniquely informative in understanding how partners may derive relationship satisfaction from empathic processes.”   In other words, when it comes to connecting with empathy, the human echo, it’s the effort that matters, not whether you get it right!

Knowing how to listen well is a skill that develops the more it is put into practice. When we begin to try to really listen, communicate empathetically, and then do not get the desired response we can easily become discouraged. Please know this…what matters is that you try! It’s the practice of curiosity and wondering that bring new light and hope to any dire relationship.

This may not be the best news for some of us who don’t like matching great effort to the idea of being wrong. We much prefer to be right or certain in our understanding of each other. However, humans are simply not simple, we are dynamically complex and our emotional responses are often layered with emotion and experience. It is for this very reason that it means so much when someone really tries to understand us. In spite of the ambiguity this empathetic curiosity may present, the greater benefit comes in embracing the challenge of real effort to acknowledge, appreciate and accept our loved one.

You may have heard the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, Try, try, try again.” (William Hickson). When we take the time to really stop and earnestly try to see the world through another’s eyes…the world changes…and so do we.

Cohen, S., Schulz, M. S., Weiss, E. & Waldinger, R. J. (2012). Eye of the Beholder: The Individual and Dyadic Contributions of Empathic Accuracy and Perceived Empathic Effort to Relationship Satisfaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 26, 236–245.


Clinical Director at Fuller Life Family Therapy Institute

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