Empathy #3: Help Me To Understand

Thanks for reading the three previous posts about Empathy (Introduction, Empathy #1 and Empathy #2).

Whether you have used the words in the title of this post in a prayer to your Higher Power or if you’ve conveyed the words to your spouse or partner, seeking to understand the condition of the heart of another is a prime ingredient of Empathy. Trying to demonstrate Empathy, where you engage in behaviors that help you to understand the thoughts, feelings and experience of another is a lot like putting together a puzzle. Literally. Let me explain.


On the coffee table in my office I have 2 interlocking puzzle pieces, shown in the picture above. When a couple comes into the office and if the situation is appropriate, I will take the pieces apart, give to each a puzzle piece and a flat surface to work on, and then ask them to reassemble the pieces with each other.

It is always interesting to see the process the couple takes to reassemble the puzzle pieces. Most of the time the couple will talk with each other as they turn the pieces around and around, over and over until the pieces click into place. At other times, the tension is so great between the two of them that they don’t talk with one another, or, one takes the pieces into his/her own hands and assembles the puzzle by him/herself while the other watches with what I perceive is a mixture of frustration and resignation.

When the pieces click into place, I’ll inform the couple that the Greek word for Understanding is Syneimi, and the word picture for Understanding is, assembling a puzzle (the full definition is written below). I’ll further explain that Understanding only occurs and is achieved when the two of them work together to assemble the pieces; if they work alone, it is great insight, but if they work together, Understanding is possible. Hopefully the takeaway for the couple is going forward, they will need to patiently look at, “grasp” the issue, discuss and work together on it, think creativity and think outside of the box in order to eventually hear the puzzle piece “click” into place, symbolizing feelings of being understood.

Achieving Understanding is critical in the process of cultivating and demonstrating Empathy. The other person who we are trying to empathize with has a need to be understood, and using skills, words and processes that demonstrate that we “get it” is important. As mentioned before, in a future post we will look at specific questions for you to consider asking that could help you to gain knowledge and respond appropriately as you endeavor to provide empathetic responses.

For now, let’s take the puzzle piece application one step further.  Literally, and pun intended.  In Empathy #1: Visit the Gallery of the Heart, we described Empathy as visiting the most prestigious of all art galleries in the world, which happens to be located in the mind and heart of your spouse, friend or partner, wherein you are able to “view the pictures” (her thoughts) that are important to her.

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In taking this a step further, let’s say you had to walk down a spiral staircase in order to get to that sacred room, the core of her heart. On each of the steps is a puzzle piece for you to collect, that when thoughtfully assembled with your spouse would provide additional “data” that would enhance your ability to understand any particular issue that is “on display” in her mind. By the way, the descent into the heart provides you with the opportunity to obtain a preliminary view of what is on the walls and in the room!

Making statements like “Help me to understand what I am not seeing” or positing questions that convey you are “turning the puzzle piece” are helpful; “Let me see if I have this correct, what you are wanting me to see that is important to you is…”  or “I wonder if you are thinking that…” or “If this were me, I believe I would feel hurt…is that what you feel and what you have been wanting me to see?”

You never thought it took so much work to demonstrate Empathy huh?  Remember, just try to integrate and learn from what you have discovered by “projecting yourself into what you have observed” and above all, remember, if your spouse wants to be understood, he or she will need to take equal responsibility to follow through on helping you to understand what is important, of value and is significant to him or her.

Application #1: Look for the seemingly insignificant pieces of data in your discussion that may help you to further or deepen your understanding about what is significant to your spouse.  I have a saying that the seemingly insignificant information really is significant. Labor to seek out and integrate this information. Using your skills to recognize, perceive, inquire and investigate to see if you have all the necessary “data” and relevant information that is connected to what is important in your discussion will prove to be very helpful in demonstrating empathy.

Application #2: Involve your spouse in the problem solving process!  She or he has valuable insight that when combined with your insight, will more than likely yield an outcome that is mutually beneficial and respectful!  A Therapist once told me “people want to be understood; if you misunderstand what they are talking about, they will correct you so that they feel understood.”  To that point, I encourage you to make another 360° in your discussion about your issue(s) to make sure you “got it.”

Application #3: Work on being patient in your process of turning the puzzle pieces. Remember, you are in the “innards” of your spouse as you discuss any particular issue. Be gentle, kind and tender-hearted because you are in his or her heart, and you want to effect healing versus causing any pain.

Thanks for reading this info on Empathy. Future posts on Empathy will be labeled “Empathy #4,” “Empathy #5,” “Empathy #6” and so on. And now, that definition of Understanding:

Understanding (Syneimi): This compound word (“Together, with” + “to send, to put”) speaks to you achieving understanding by working with another person (and/or with God, but always with another), to collect and put together individual features of an object into a whole, as if you were collecting the pieces of a puzzle and assembling them together. Syneimi involves immediate knowledge, moral reflection, pondering and “taking issues into the heart,” as opposed to merely reflecting on the meaning of something. A Target behavior for your consideration: What specific and immediate issue or area, preferably, “one piece at a time,” do you need to work on with someone else in order to increase your understanding and to “get it” in your effort to see or understand the bigger picture?

Thanks for visiting and please visit the other blogs written by Dr Ken McGill: Daily Bread for Life and “3 – 2 – 5 – 4 – 24″ for additional information that could be helpful. I welcome your comments below or via email and your favorites, your retweets and your “+1’s” if you have a brief moment and find the information helpful. Again, it is my desire to provide the very best info for your consideration.

TeleHealth/Video counseling sessions are available for those who prefer to meet online – Dr. McGill

Businesswoman presses button psychological counseling online on virtual screens. technology, internet and networking concept.

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