Empathy 101 for A-Holes: A Love Story

“The reason I’m here is my wife is unhappy with me. I’m worried about her because I think she’s really depressed. It’s not like her to lie around all the time. She’s still taking good care of the kids, but just about everything else has tanked.”

It wasn’t an unusual way for a counseling session to begin.

Me: What’s she unhappy about with you? Client: She thinks I’m a total narcissist.

She says I have absolutely no empathy, that I’m unfeeling. She says, “It’s always a checklist. We never have a real conversation about anything.” She’s not even willing to come to counseling with me.

My first mistake was wondering to myself, “How bad can this guy be? He seems pretty emotionally intelligent to me. The wife isn’t here, so I can’t get a read on her.”

After a few sessions, he clued me in. “I don’t think you understand what an a-hole I am.” So he gave me a few examples that took my breath and I got the picture. But he seemed so comfortable with his a-holeness.

Me: If she wasn’t so unhappy with you, would you even be here?

Client: Honestly, no. The problem is I’m not unhappy with myself. But I can’t really be happy if she’s so miserable.

No, You’re Not a Narcissist

As we continued to work together, it became clear to me that Client wasn’t a narcissist. He described too many occasions of empathic responses, so he wasn’t missing the empathy microchip. The problem was he was only comfortable letting his Inner Empath out in an emergency or crisis situation, like an accident or a death in the family.

Me: I have good news for you. I don’t think you’re a narcissist. In fact, I think it would be better if we stopped pathologizing you with that label. Instead, let’s start exploring what it would take to make it pay to allow your Inner Empathic Side out, just enough to connect better with your wife. We’re only talking about a very small shift, maybe 10%. I think that will be enough to reap big benefits, without freaking you out — or your wife.

By the way, you still get to keep your inner a-hole around. Because you never know when you might really need it. We’re not talking about a personality transplant, okay?

He seemed relieved and we knuckled down to work

Feelings First, Solutions Second.

Like many successful professionals, Client had a strong Rational Mind part of himself, so it was easy to jump to problem-solving with his wife when things got tense. Fix it — that’s the fastest way to make bad feelings go away as soon as possible, right?

Wrong. Research shows that pretending nothing’s wrong raises heart rates for both of you. Having your feelings recognized and validated actually helps both you and your partner’s nervous system calm down, so you can both think more clearly.

The problem isn’t going into fix-it mode. Most of us don’t want someone to “just listen.” We also want help. The problem is getting the cart before the horse. Feelings, first. Solutions, second.

The Three Types of Empathy

Client: But my wife wants me to feel what she feels. Her modus operandi is 100% empathy for everyone, all the time. I’ll never feel empathy to the degree that my wife does.

Me: I’ve got good news for you. You don’t have to always feel what she feels in order to have a good connection and a good relationship. Yes, that’s what she says she wants, but there are two other alternatives that may be totally satisfying to her, without requiring you to feel what she feels. There are actually three types of empathy.

Client: How will that help? I don’t have any empathy of any kind. I’m an a-hole, remember?

Me: Hear me out. The Harvard Business Review series on emotional intelligence has identified three types of empathy. All of them are powerful and effective, but only one of them involves feeling what the other person is feeling. Here’s how it breaks down:

Emotional Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else feels.

Cognitive Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective.

Empathic Concern is the ability to understand what the other person is feeling and what they need from you.

My advice? Don’t worry too much about trying to feel what she feels. Instead, just let your natural curiosity fuel your cognitive empathy, so you get a better understanding of what she’s feeling and why, from her perspective. I have a feeling your empathic concern will kick in from there.

Client looked relieved and we forged ahead.

Operation Empathy Gets Underway — And It’s Bumpy.

Client’s first attempts at cognitive empathy and empathic concern didn’t go smoothly.

Me: How’d it go?

Client: Not so good, Doc. I got curious and started asking her questions. You know what she said? “It’s like you’re following a checklist and you want me to tell you if you did it right. It’s more about whether you did a good job than how I feel. You make it more about you than about me!”

Me: So you were a bit clunky. It’s to be expected when you’re learning. Since a checklist approach appeals to you, may I make a suggestion? Let your natural curiosity include paying attention to your wife’s posture, gestures, facial expression, tone of voice and other signs of emotion, even when you don’t particularly want to. And look her in the eye when you’re talking. You’ll almost automatically feel more engaged. Then your questions are less likely to sound like a checklist.

Client Gets a Lucky Break.

Shortly after this interaction, Client got a lucky break, one of life’s ways of dropping something helpful into our laps. It involved a “difficult” relative in the family. Usually Client’s wife experienced the brunt of it, but this time, like a ray of sunshine, Client’s wife saw her “unfeeling” husband lose it for a brief moment of utter exasperation. He felt exactly what Client’s wife had felt in similar interactions with Difficult Relative — and expressed it enough to validate her feelings in a spontaneous, genuine way. Voila! A brief moment of connection for the two of them.

The Turning Point

I used this lucky break as an opportunity to suggest something counter-intuitive to Client.

Me: I’m going to take a big risk with you today. I’m going to suggest that rather than always trying to read and respond to your wife’s emotions, that you also more closely tap into what you’re feeling when things get fraught — and maybe even share it with her.

Client: Isn’t that just being self-absorbed? Making it all about me?

Me: Not necessarily. Let’s practice for a moment, so you can see what I mean.

Let’s say your wife has gone on at length about something bothering her that doesn’t involve the two of you. You’ve told me these problems are usually beyond your ability to help, but you feel responsible for helping her fix the problem. If you could say what you’re really feeling — just between you and me — at times like these, what would it be?

Client: I’d say something like “I’m getting worn out listening to this,” or, “Why are you asking me? I have no clue, or if I did, you wouldn’t listen to me.”

Me: Good. It’s a two-step process. First, tap into what you’re really feeling. Then — you’ll need some help with this part— translate it into something emotionally intelligent to say, like, “I want to help, but I don’t know what to say. I wish I did.” That’s honest — and empathic.

Me: Let’s try another one. Let’s raise the stakes and say it’s something bothering her that involves the two of you. If you could say what you’re really feeling in these situations, what would it be?

Client: I usually try to reason with her and say something like, “That’s not going to work, for the following reasons.” Then I’d tick them off. Then she’ll get ticked off.

Me: Okay, you can still be honest and translate it into something more emotionally intelligent to say, “I’m looking at this from a different angle,” or, “There’s another aspect to consider here and that’s XYZ.”

The Rubber Meets the Road

Soon after, life presented an opportunity in the form of a family vacation. Day 1’s excursion at the amusement park went badly. On the drive back to the hotel, Client sensed his wife’s bad mood, felt anxious and couldn’t help but go straight to problem-solving.

Client: Well, we could skip tomorrow at the park and do something else. (Continues thinking aloud, listing several options and alternatives.)

Client’s Wife: Will you just stop it? The last thing I want to do is create more work and more stress for ourselves! I just want to get back to the hotel and forget about it!

Client (pausing and recovering nicely): You’re right. I went to my comfort zone and started contingency planning and problem solving, and you don’t like that. If I say the frivolous things I think you want me to say, you think I’m being fake. I’m at a loss. I don’t know what to do.

Client’s wife’s reaction? She seemed a bit taken aback and then got quiet. The mood was subdued, but not combustible. Later that evening they gingerly revisited the topic and decided to return to the park on Day 2, but do some things differently to make it more enjoyable.

Client seemed cautiously optimistic about the incident. I was, too.

Me: It’s important to note that this is your first win, not because you did it perfectly or it ended in some incredibly intimate moment. It’s a win because it had the potential to go very badly and you defused it. You recovered and you kept it from getting worse. That’s big.

The Big Breakthrough

Marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman describes a seemingly unlikely way for couples to overcome relationship gridlock. “No matter how seemingly insignificant the issue, gridlock is a sign that you each have dreams for your life that the other isn’t aware of, hasn’t acknowledged, or doesn’t respect. By dreams I mean the hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are part of your identity and give purpose and meaning to your life.”

That’s exactly what happened when Client eventually tapped into his wife’s dream to start a creative project, one that she couldn’t pull off without his help. Not only did he end up supporting her own efforts, he enthusiastically made his own unique contributions. It was lovely to see how the project unfolded and brought them together.

The best part? It was a win-win. Client didn’t have to feel what his wife was feeling in order to understand her feelings and give her what she most needed.