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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Listening with Empathy

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 18th 2011

Listening with EmpathyHypothetical Case:

George comes from a hard day at work. He is frustrated and angry at his boss who expects him to work over the weekend due to a need to meet some company deadlines. This has happened in the past and he always resents it. He knows he is paid a bonus for his weekend services but resents the last minute nature of the work demand. He, his wife and kids usually have weekend plans to go fishing or to the baseball game, basket ball game or to visit relatives who live in the mountains where it is beautiful, peaceful and where his wife and kids love to go.

The problem is that when he expresses his outrage about the situation he gets responses that make him feel angrier, wrong for having his reaction to the boss and more frustrated because no one seems to be listening.
His wife tells him things such as:

"Oh well, there is always next weekend," or, "think of the extra money you will earn and how we can use it," or, "it's not so bad, the weekend will go quickly," or, "don't get upset, it's okay,"worst of all, "you are always getting angry about the smallest things and you just do not want to work hard."

Then she is confused when he responds angrily or annoyed.

Does this sound familiar? It should for many of you. But, hoe cam George have these reactions to his wife and to wife with whom he has an otherwise loving relationship? How come his wife comes away from these situations also feeling angry, confused and upset?

What George needs and wants is empathy. He wants to feel that she is listening.

I suggest that everyone who wants to understand this problem read a wonderful book called:

The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem 

written by Guy Winch PhD, Copyright 2011

Dr. Winch, PhD, suggests you follow all five of the following steps if you really want to help your spouse, friend, loved one when they are complaining bitterly about a problem:

1. Let the person complete their narrative so you have all the facts.

2. Convey you get what happened to them from their perspective (whether you agree with that perspective or not and even if their perspective is obviously skewed).

3. Convey you understand how they felt as a result of what happened (from their perspective).

4. Convey that their feelings are completely reasonable (which they are given their perspective).

5. Convey empathy or sympathy (not pity!) for their emotional reactions.

Although it may seem illogical to show empathy to a loved one who is angry about a situation and with whom you disagree, it's important to realize that they are looking for empathy. Being empathic, the other person feels a sense of relief. They want to know that you grasp what is happening with them. Agreeing or disagreeing is not the point. Giving advice is not the point. In fact, doing either only aggravates things.

Always remember: Empathy begins with listening.

Guy Winch's wonderful book provides step by step instructions on how to voice complaints to loved ones productively and how respond to them.

Your comments are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

agree with wife - Cathy - Aug 19th 2011

This sounds bad but I agree with what the wife said pretty much especially if he goes through this on a regular basis.  It just sort of depends on if this is something that happens all the time that he is unhappy with.  I always liked what we learned in Biology centuries ago about what animals do ina "situation" that isn't working:  1.  adapt to the situation  2.  move away from the situation  3. die and this pretty much applies to all situations exist.  

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