How to Use Empathy in Relationships

If you find yourself asking, "Should I become a life coach?" this episode is for you. Episode 39 of the Catalyst Life Coaching Podcast centers on empathy.

The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring Lumia Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. Subscribe to get new episodes weekly!

How To Use Empathy In Relationships

Episode transcript

John: On today’s episode, we’re going to talk about how to use empathy in relationships.

Noelle: So, empathy is a tool. It is a skillset. It is something that can be taught to folks. You’re not naturally born with it, it's something that you learn. It is the act of taking time to understand somebody else’s perspective from a 360º view of what they see, what they hear, what they think, what they feel, and how that impacts what they might say or do.

And the value of this exercise, this process, this way of being, is it allows you to relate to people in a new way that you may have never considered, and develop compassion and change the way that you behave in turn, in response rather than reaction.

John: I love how you said 360º view. Most people don’t do that—most people maybe go 20º. But what do you mean by that, what do you mean by 360º?

Noelle: So, I’m gonna take it to a really weird place right now.

John: Yes, please do.

Noelle: Okay, so before the Industrial Revolution, people used to live in towns and villages, and family members and family lines had similar traits. So, if you saw somebody with a certain nose, or broad shoulders and a stocky build, you could pretty much say okay, this person is from that family, that clan, I know who these people are.

During that period of time, someone’s character was much more valuable than their appearance, because folks didn't have a lot of social mobility. You were born into whatever family, or class, or station in life you were born into— you have the physical characteristics associated with that family and whether or not you were a good person of character was how people determined value.

After the Industrial Revolution, people left their cities and towns and they moved away from their families of origin, and you had, all of the sudden, these huge industrial hubs spring up, where you had people from all over the place coming together, and there was no way to determine what somebody’s character was, so society changed.

And people began to value each other based on physical appearance and possessions. If someone had a certain watch that meant that they had enough money to buy that watch and that ascribed some sort of value to them. This is the time when body image for women became a big problem— the era of the Gibson girls with narrow waists so on and so forth.

So, for the past 150 years, we’ve been socialized to look at people and judge them based on their exterior presentation, without ever giving thought to the entire universe that each of us have inside of us.

And when were talking about a 360º perspective, its checking yourself. Checking yourself and saying, “Am I responding to this person based on my socialized cues? Am I judging this person based on how they look, what they have, what they’re wearing?” Versus taking the time to understand who they are, what they’ve been through in life, where they’re going  and what they experience on their interior.

John: Yeah, I think for me, knowing their story, ya know. It’s very easy to judge people by their words and actions, and of course, many people hurt us because of what they say and what they do. What makes them human, what makes them 3-dimensional, is when you learn the reason why they are saying what they’re saying.

So, you know their reactions or its triggering them or when you get to know their story when you get to start to peel their layers and you understand. It doesn't mean that you’re less hurt, but then there’s that room to actually be empathetic and I think empathy is the doorway to compassion.

Noelle: It is. It is the doorway to compassion, and I think there’s a huge bridge there that needs to be forged. So how can we kind of pull this out and say, “Okay, this is how you do it as a tool and how you use it in your everyday life”?

John: Yes, let’s give people some actionable steps. If empathy—if being empathetic—is a struggle for you, and it is for many, especially in relationships, because you know the thing is, that the closer you are to someone, sometimes the harder it is to be empathetic to that person.

Noelle: Oh very much so, and—

John: Right, and it’s almost easier to be empathetic to a stranger.

Noelle: Mhmm, yes it is. Because when you’re in a relationship—especially a close relationship with each other— what they do and say with their own time has a impact on you, right? Yeah.

John: Well they also have more power to hurt you.

Noelle: Power to hurt you and also power to make your day better, too. So, it can really change the emotional environment that you experience when you start pulling from a place of empathy. You know a common one is a romantic partner. There are I think—based on years of relationship coaching and just kind of existing in the world—when you look at couples, we all have this total depth inside of us, and there's not a human out there that doesn’t have this vast, complicated, layered interior of thought, feeling, emotion, hopes, dreams, you know so on and so forth. Most couples don’t talk about that stuff with each other.

John: That makes me so sad cause I know it’s true.

Noelle: It’s totally true you know.

John: We talk about the logistics, and what we want for lunch, and what we’re gonna do, and all that kind of stuff, but it’s very surfacy.

Noelle: It’s very surfacy. I think that kind of going back to the Industrial Revolution, being socialized you know for hundreds of years to ascribe power and value to things, a relationship is another check box. Do you have a boyfriend? Check. Do you have a girlfriend? Check. Are you married? Check. But what does that mean in terms of an energetic exchange? What does that mean in terms of truly knowing someone’s interior? That’s scary shit.

John: Yeah, well it’s scarier to show your interior.

Noelle: It is. It's scary to show your interior, and it’s scary to go deep into somebody else’s interior and say, “you know what, I’m gonna honor you in this space”.

John: Why is that scary? Because it means what?

Noelle: I think it’s scary because folks don’t wanna deal with feelings. I think it’s scary because of attachment—that once you really get to know someone and understand what goes on for them daily in their inside it’s hard to pull away. You feel responsibility, you feel love, you feel compassion. I think it’s scary because our world is designed on the surface—the phone, the pocketbook, the car, the shoes.

John: I think also for men, and I know this is a generalization, but since I have a book coming out about men and redefining what a man looks like, I think that because of society, men may see showing their interior as a weakness—putting the shield down, this is not a manly thing to do.

Noelle: So, talk to me about that, because I am not a man. What was it like to be socialized in that way? Where do those cues come from?

John: I think they come from locker rooms, they come from frat houses, they come from other men, and I think it starts with at home—not having a male role model who is vulnerable, who does show his interior, and teaches you as a little boy growing up that it's okay to practice empathy, to say I love you, to ask someone how they feel, you know that kind of stuff. And I think that muscle is rarely used and then we grow up and get into relationships, and you know we're just like, you know all you do is talk about things and try to fix things, it’s like who are you?

Noelle: How does that translate into an experience of intimacy?

John: Well, add to all that, pornography and a lot of other things that distort intimacy, and our definitions of intimacy and I think it's just become skin deep. This is not everyone, of course I’m generalizing, but I’m just saying through the men that I’ve coached, and my own  friends and stuff, intimacy doesn’t get super deep, doesn’t get to a spiritual level, doesn’t get to eye contact deeper than skin level, because one you’re not showing yourself, you’re not doing, you’re not being intimate by completely being transparent, and also I think just sex and pornography and things that we’ve seen, and images and that kind of programming can turn it into a sport, you know?

Noelle: Yeah, so this is the big problem, and it transcends. It’s not just at home, in what I would refer to as binary one man, one woman romantic relationships—but I think it flows into the workspace, I think  it flows into the gym, I think it flows into friendships—where men feel that they can’t show themselves.

John: Yes, I think also for women, especially at an early age, if men are acting like this, women then accept it and then they don’t speak up, and they don’t talk about their feelings. And then you have two people who are not kind of honest in a way, who are not showing theirselves, who are not pulling from their interior.

Noelle: Yeah and and I don’t think it’s a lack of honesty, I mean I think it’s just walls.

John: Walls, right. Walls and fear.

Noelle: Yeah, I think it’s walls. That’s really interesting, and I’m just kind of thinking about women—showing yourselves, talking about feelings, talking about your interior. Because let’s face it—we live in a patriarchal society, where male characteristics are valued more than female characteristics. Those behaviors are seen as showing weakness, as acting like a woman, acting like a girl, and that’s negative, that pejorative.

Last night I did a business training, and it was a really great training and something that I have been learning and really working on, in the context of my professional life, is taking a break and being honest with everybody around me when I’ve reached a point where I’m physically, mentally, and emotionally dysfunctional, because I’m getting the shit kicked out of me, and I need to take a break. And up until, I’d say about 2 months ago, I would beat myself up for taking a break, because I thought that it denoted weakness. And last night, there was a male trainer, and I asked him, I said “How do you contend with the fact that, as an entrepreneur, there are just gonna be times where you get the shit kicked out of you and can’t function?” And he looked at me, point blank, and said “The world doesn’t care about your problems”.

John: He was very empathetic to you.

Noelle: You have to get up anyway, and I didn’t challenge him, because I wasn’t the one leading the training, but I just thought “Wow, what a non-empathetic, masculine way to see the world—I must pull through, I must suffer through my feelings”, and I was like no.

John: There’s a huge swell of this kind of man up, hustle, work 24 hours, wake up at 4 am. If you don’t work 20 hours a day, or if you ever complain, then that means you don’t want it bad enough. There’s a strange thing happening in the world with entrepreneurship, and I don’t know where it’s coming from—if it’s coming from the tech world or whatever. But, I think because so many people now more than ever are leaving their 9-5 and pursuing their passions, and people are finding out how difficult it is, there’s a lot of this kind of messaging, and I don’t know how I feel about it.

Noelle: That you have to stuff your feelings and hustle?

John: Yeah, that you’re not allowed to complain, that you have to wake up at 4 am, that you have to outwork someone—all these things. And I understand there’s truth to if you want to build anything, and you and I know this, how difficult it is, and I, like you, don’t believe in balance. I know that if you want to build anything sustainable that you’re working your ass off, and you have to thread it into your life, but I still think that it’s okay to have feelings.

Noelle: Yes!

John: It’s okay to say that it is hard—

Noelle: Yes!

John: —and not to pretend. The pretending is what bothers me.

Noelle: So, what’s so important about empathy is that human beings are not capable of repressing their feelings. When we repress our feelings and we repress our emotions, they come out in other ways—they come out in maladaptive behaviors.

John: Physically too.

Noelle: Physically. They come out in maladaptive behaviors, physically. If we know this and we’re kind of looking around at the landscape of everything and saying, “Wow, we’re in this place in society, we’re at this point in time where hundreds of millions of billions of people are walking around masking their feelings, masking their pain, feeling like they can’t speak up, they can’t show themselves, they can’t embrace their humanity, and they must work work work work work”. That sounds like a really bad idea to me.

John: Yeah, it’s a car crash.

Noelle: It is. It sounds terrible, and what I said in the training last night is, “We are adopting empathy as a company cultural characteristic”, and he said, “You’re the first company I’ve ever heard, from a leadership perspective, say we're doing this”, and I think it makes such an incredible difference for anyone within our organization to be able to say “You know what, I’m having a really bad week, I can’t hack it right now, I need to tap out”, and for everybody else to say “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, please take space, we have it”.

John: You know, that stuff is rarely found in the workplace—empathy.

Noelle: Right? And it is vital to long-term human functioning. If you want to run the marathon of entrepreneurship, and you don’t have people around you that you can freely, openly, without fear of ramification, admit when you’re having a hard time and that you need to take a break, to take care of yourself, it’s not gonna work.

John: Sure.

Noelle: Could you imagine? I can’t. And that’s the thing, I can't imagine a different way of being, and I don’t know how to disrupt it in other places, rather than to model.

John: Yes, to model to be the example. Unfortunately most people work in those kind of spaces where empathy is not even its not in there.

Noelle: No.

John: It’s production, it's what you produce, it’s hours, it’s all of that stuff, it’s sales.

Noelle: Yep.

John: There’s very small room for empathy. But going back to relationships, I think that one of the things that I like to do, especially if I’m struggling with being empathetic with someone, not only trying to learn their story but try to see the essence of who they are.

Noelle: Yeah, and from a functional perspective, I don’t want it to sound like this is all rainbows and unicorns, and you employ empathy and all the sudden you’re filled with compassion and everything goes well. No, it’s totally fucking messy. So I’ll give a case study example. Something that happened in the last 2 weeks for me. My husband and I got into a massive fight. It was such a big fight that it was one of those things where the next day I physically hurt, because I was just like oh my god, and I was salty, and I was stressed, and I was all the things. And I went out with a friend and was kind of talking about it, and I came to some levels of awareness about what I learned about my husbands perspective on different things. And that is the beginning of empathy—when you’re taking the time to learn about somebody else’s perspective, not because you want to be right, or prove your point, but because you genuinely want to work towards a better partnership. There has to be that intention there, and I came back to him and said “You know what, I understand things that I didn’t understand before. These are all the things that I see now. Did I get this right, and how can I do a better job of being there for you, and being supportive?”. My husband is wonderful—he’s not as verbal as I am, and so he just physically lit up, and I could see it in him that he just felt secure, like oh my god, my wife is there for me and I was like oh my god, this is what its all about—being able to provide that for somebody else.

John: Yeah, and maybe we could end here. The good news about empathy, and the power of it is that once you actually practice it, the return is great. Usually when someone is empathetic to you, the other person can show empathy back in the way that they do it.

Noelle: Yeah and the quality of the relationships is exponentially increased.

John: Yes. So guys, listen, empathy is soil and I think without, especially in relationships, without it, you really are building on sand, and also, as we mentioned, if you’re an entrepreneur and if you’re even a life coach, or you’re looking for a life coach, empathy is key—it’s crucial in any human exchange, so make sure you’re practicing empathy, and make sure you’re in a space where you are getting it back.

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