Get the nod

Todd 3Maybe you think you are saying all the right things to your partner to tell them that you understand how they’re feeling. But perhaps you’re not. One way to get a true sense of whether or not you are showing empathy is to see if you get the nod. When you react to your partner’s pain, do they nod in response to your words? Or do they keep trying to express how they’re feeling? Worse still, do they roll their eyes or simply shut down? When we look for this simple non-verbal cue, we can measure how well we’re doing in the empathy stakes pretty quickly.

Looking at some examples, it’s fairly easy to see which statements would get the nod.

Your partner explains that they are getting really flustered with some technological issue. You respond by saying:

a) Here, let me do it.

b) Calm down. You’re getting stressed over nothing.

c) It’s so frustrating when that happens, isn’t it?

Your partner states that they’re embarrassed by the idea of people bringing gifts to their birthday party. You respond by saying:

a) Don’t be ridiculous. They want to give you something.

b) So tell them not to.

c) I know you don’t want people to make a fuss and you just want your friends to celebrate with you.

Your partner looks exhausted but is still rushing around doing chores. You respond by saying:

a) I don’t know why you don’t just sit down and relax.

b) I said I would do that.

c) You look absolutely shattered but you obviously still want things done.

So the next time your partner, child, friend or colleague expresses any type of emotional pain, stop and think what you can say to get the nod. Once you see the sign that you’ve nailed your response, whatever you say next will be far better received and you will be more likely to avoid an argument.

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What pushes your partner’s buttons?

Meer CatsHaving trouble showing your partner empathy? Here’s a powerful exercise for the two of you to practice. Without discussing it with each other, write down a list of everything that causes your partner pain. What upsets him or her? What infuriates them? What makes them sad or distressed? When do they get anxious? If you’re in a medium to long-term relationship, you will know what pushes their buttons.

Once you’ve written your lists, show one another. How do you feel reading through the list that your partner wrote? Usually it feels fabulous to know that our partner understands us. If you can relate to what they have written about you, then they have done a wonderful job of showing empathy. That’s because they have taken themselves out of the equation and have only thought about you and your pain.

If you’re feeling up to it, why not make a second list that suggests ways in which you can minimise the times you trigger their pain. For example, if you know that your partner is easily embarrassed when you make jokes at his or her expense in public, then allow the empathy to flow and stop making the jokes. If you understand that your chronic lateness frustrates your partner,  why not make a concerted effort to be more punctual?

We don’t have to change our personalities, but knowing that we have the power to lessen the pain for the person we love can only lead to a stronger and closer relationship.

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LyingLying for some people is a deal breaker in a relationship. If you lie, I can’t trust you – full stop. For others, there are degrees of lying. Saying that you left the office at 6pm when you really left at 6.30pm is not a serious lie for many people. Saying that you didn’t have sex with a colleague when you did is a significant lie for most. Exclaiming that you love the gift you received (when you didn’t) would be forgiven by almost all but lying about how much you spent on a purchase could cause problems.

What happens when a couple is made up of one person who has a zero tolerance policy for lying and another who is a little more relaxed about the rules? Fireworks – that’s what happens.

For the person who cannot tolerate lying, saying that you got home by midnight when you really got in at 4am causes extreme distress. That’s because their imaginations can run wild. If you lie about what time you got home, what else are you lying about? The problem is, the stronger the reaction to the lie , the more the “liar” lies to avoid confrontation. In fact, that’s probably why they are lying in the first place. They didn’t want to cop a spray for their late night, so they lied about coming home by midnight.

It’s often the same for children. If the punishment for lying is extreme, they can sometimes start thinking up better ways to lie. I’ve debated with many parents who tell their children that as long as they tell the truth, they won’t be punished. What? So your child steals money from a friend’s wallet but when you asked them about it, they told the truth so end of story. Isn’t it more important to discuss why they stole the money? Wouldn’t it be important for them to return the money and face the consequences?

So back to the couple made up of a “white liar” and someone with zero tolerance for lies, what should they do to avoid the arguments? Many would say that the liar should simply stop lying in any shape or form. And yes, that would stop a lot of the arguments. But it’s also a little unrealistic unless the punishment for lying is reduced and the focus is shifted onto the “crimes”.

Asking your partner why they came in so late when they had promised to be home early is probably more important than focusing on why they lied about it. Discussing why they spent so much money on a gift when you’re on a tight budget is more relevant than fighting over why they lied about it.

And on a final note, if you don’t want your partner or child to continually lie to you, stop using the word “lie.” Instead of saying Don’t lie to me, say Please be honest with me. Instead of saying You’re lying, say I want you to tell me the truth. If all we hear is the word “lie,” our minds think of ways to lie. If we hear “honest” and “truth,” our minds focus on honesty and truthfulness.

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Joint decision-making about money

Extreme closeup of golden coins, columns and a heap

Think you and your partner are making joint decisions when it comes to the household budget? What does your partner think? Let’s look at a case study:

Michael is the main breadwinner and Sally works part-time and is the primary carer of their three children. Sally is a natural spender and Michael is a saver. They get on really well, except when they fight over money. He thinks she is totally irresponsible because she spends far more than the money they have “agreed” that she should spend each week. She feels like he is her boss and she has no say in how the money is spent. Sally avoids talking about money at all costs.

When they come in for counselling, they are both feeling frustrated and misunderstood. When Sally explains that she feels controlled by Michael over money (they have joint bank accounts), he responds by offering to “give” her more money if she justifies her expenditure. Sally starts to cry. Michael shakes his head in confusion and looks to me for validation: What else can I do? I only make so much money. There is not much more to spend. We are going backwards.

Sally jumps in and explains that she wants to be part of the decision making: Why is it that you are able to buy whatever you want but I have to check with you? Michael shoots back: I don’t spend much money, so it doesn’t affect our bank account. And I let you buy nearly everything you want. I’m happy for you to go away with the girls for the weekend and shop once a year. I was so supportive when you wanted to fly over and see your mum and I told you to go. How can I be fairer than that?

Michael is not a controlling person, but he is trying to control the household spend. In his mind, without his control, they would lose all their money. Sadly, if they continue to tackle the problem this way, their relationship will be in jeopardy. Sally obviously needs to own her habit of over-spending but the combination of a spender and a saver should balance out nicely if they work as a team.

Michael was encouraged to rethink how he tackled the issue.

Instead of saying: I’m happy for you to spend money on travelling to see your mum. It was suggested he say: What do we think? Are we happy for you to spend money on travelling to see your mum? I know I am, what about you?

Instead of saying: How much do you need for the weekly grocery spend? I’m happy to increase the amount I put in that account. He was encouraged to say: Let’s work out what’s needed for the weekly groceries.

Instead of saying: This credit card statement is outrageous. I thought I told you not to go over $2000 each month. Michael learned to say: I’m a bit worried about our credit card bill each month. Can we sit down and talk about it. It’s our money and we should jointly decide how to spend it.

When Michael started changing the way he brought up the issue of Sally’s spending and made it more about making joint decisions, Sally stopped avoiding the issue and started owning her issue of over-spending. The arguments rapidly decreased and they felt closer and I was out of a job.

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Sabotaging relationships

bombAre you a saboteur? Perhaps you don’t even realise that you are sabotaging perfectly good relationships in an effort to protect yourself. In a nutshell, sabotage is the attempt to control the uncontrollable. When we fear getting hurt by someone we love, we can consciously or unconsciously try to control the hurt by triggering a break-up. For many people, it feels better to be in charge of the end rather than wait for what feels like the inevitable.

All four main characters in Seinfeld were saboteurs. As soon as a relationship was going well, they would start searching for the faults: big hands, close talker, low talker, face-painter, and my favourite – eating peas one at a time. They would discuss these “faults” and as a group, conclude that the relationship shouldn’t continue. No wonder they all ended up alone. Now I know Seinfeld was a TV sitcom, but how many times have you contemplated ending a relationship for trivial reasons?

Confusingly, the sabotaging can be done by an individual who really does want out, but doesn’t want to be seen as the bad guy (or girl). They will push their partner into finishing the relationship rather than ending it themselves. They might emotionally check out or they may have an affair and hope to be found out. Then when they are told to leave, they can seek comfort in the fact that they weren’t the one who officially ended things.

The trouble with sabotage is that it can leave behind a trail of confusion and deep hurt. The person who is left has no idea what just happened. One minute things were going well and the next it’s over. Most of us question what we did wrong and it can be hard to accept the fact that a relationship had to end when we didn’t see it coming.

Signs you may be a saboteur:

  • You have a history of relationships that start off intensely and finish quickly
  • As soon as you begin to feel close to someone, you start finding their faults
  • You have never ended a relationship, even when you weren’t happy
  • Your relationships usually last less than 2 years
  • Your friends and family warn people to stay away from you or you will end up hurting them

Why do people become saboteurs? If someone has been badly hurt in a relationship or has witnessed a parent or close friend being badly hurt, they can fear suffering the same fate. If a parent modelled sabataging behaviour, children can grow up to do the same. When children witness a toxic parental relationship, they may do anything they can to avoid a similar situation.

If you are a saboteur, it’s time to gain some insight and make come changes. Falling in love is worth the risk of being hurt. Being vulnerable with another person brings you closer and although scary, feels so special.

If you’re trying to have a relationship with a saboteur, run for the hills because if they don’t understand what they’re doing, you will become another casualty.

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Say what you see

Young girl indoors cryingSome of the loveliest people can find it difficult to show empathy when it’s needed. If they see a loved one hurting, they hurt. If they are the person responsible for causing that pain, they feel even worse. When ashamed or embarrassed, they can feel paralysed and utterly unable to focus on their partner’s pain.

If you find yourself defending your actions or attempting to find a solution when someone you love is upset, it may well be coming from a place of love and care. Unfortunately, it won’t come across that way. The lack of overt empathy is often interpreted as uncaring and sometimes as cold or even aggressive.

The trick to showing empathy is to first say what you see.

I can see how distressed you are.

You’re clearly rocked by what’s happened.

You seem so down.

You’re obviously feeling really angry about this.

These statements convey empathy. They show that you are observing what’s going on for this person you care about and you’re wanting to understand. If you don’t understand why they’re so angry/upset/down, ask … but only after you have said what you see.

You’re obviously feeling really angry about this. Tell me why, I want to understand.

It’s the same method we use for a toddler who’s having a tantrum: You’re clearly very upset about something and I want to understand why, so try to use your words and explain it to me.

We’re all toddlers inside. We all get frustrated when we are not heard or understood. Adults need what children need – a person who loves us to try to see things from where we stand. And that’s exactly what empathy is. So if your partner is complaining that they don’t feel heard or understood and you are struggling to know how to convey your love and support, start by saying what you see.


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Being pleased for others

high fivesI’ve had a week hearing about good things happening for many of my friends. These are people I love. Why does my mind take a brief detour on the way to being so pleased for them? Why is there that flash of envy? Fortunately, it’s only a flash and then I can genuinely enjoy their good news. But it’s still unsettling that it happens at all.

@jacintatynan wrote a fabulous piece last year about realising that good friends celebrate your successes as well as being there in the dark times. There are people who are fabulous comfort when we are struggling, but keep a wide berth when we do well. Hopefully our closest friends can do both.

Back to that flash of envy? Is it normal? Yes. Can we stop it from happening? Not really. Can we use it for good not evil? Most definitely. The way I have come to cope with this unpleasant reaction is to remind myself that if I am feeling envious, then what’s happened for my friend is truly fabulous. That’s because I don’t envy material things (well maybe the odd holiday or two). The stronger my reaction, the better the news must be and that’s what I try to convey – genuine happiness that something wonderful has happened to a fantastic person. Because let’s face it, bad things happen to good people all the time so we need to celebrate the occasions when the world seems to make sense.

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Getting closer

close friendsWhether it’s a friend you want to get to know on a deeper level or you yearn for a closer relationship with your partner, increased intimacy is the way to go. If we take intimacy to mean sharing, then we need to be more open with those who matter.

Social media is fabulous on so many levels, but it can interfere with intimacy. Despite the fact that social media is designed to allow easy sharing of information, if the information is not completely honest, how can intimacy be increased? I’m often hearing people complaining that others are far happier and successful than they are. How do they assess others’ happiness and success? By looking at their facebook pages and Instragram. If someone does post something really negative, it’s seen as intense and somewhat odd. So perhaps social media is not the way to get closer to someone.

Conversations can be ranked in degrees of openness or intimacy. Take the following responses to the standard question: How was your weekend?

a) Great. How was yours?

b) Not too bad. Had a quiet one. How was yours?

c) Mmm, pretty quiet actually. I didn’t really see anyone. I need to plan ahead a bit more because I was a bit lonely at times. How was yours?

Obviously, the degree of honesty increases with each statement.

Let’s look at some replies to another common question: How was work?

a) Same as usual. You?

b) It wasn’t great. How about you?

c) I really stuffed up today and I’ve been beating myself up about it.

Which reply do you think would trigger a more open conversation?

For a closer relationship, you often need to take the risk of being honest about how you feel about the other person. Trying not to rock the boat with any complaints won’t resolve issues. As long as you don’t make personal attacks, it’s important to say what’s on your mind. Fear of scaring someone away can also stop people being open and honest. Here are some examples of intimate statements:

I miss you. I’d love to spend more time with you, but you are always busy.

I’m still hurt that you forgot our anniversary. Next year, can we plan to celebrate it because it’s really important to me?

I know it’s going to be tricky for you, but I would really like you to be there tonight.

I loved spending the day with you. You’re fabulous company and I’d like to do this again.

And if you’re trying to get closer to a person who has just opened up to you, it’s important that you return the favour by being more honest yourself. Relationships feel really one-sided when one person is an open book and the other remains mysterious.


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One celebration at a time

trophyMy best friend in high school was a brilliant sportswoman. She could play any sport well, but she was incredibly humble. I was appalling at sport and I was in awe of her ability. I knew whenever she had an important race or match coming up and I wished her well and congratulated her profusely after a win. But while I thought I was being incredibly supportive, I later learned that all she felt was pressure.

Looking back, I can see that she had every reason to feel frustrated by my behaviour. Whenever she did well in the school swimming or athletics carnival, I would be enthusing about the inter-school competition coming up. When she did well against other schools, I was already assuring her that she would do well at state level. In other words, I didn’t allow her to feel pleased with what she had achieved, because I was pushing her to do better and go further. In the end, she stopped telling me how she performed and I learned to stop asking. I’m sorry that I didn’t know how to be a more supportive friend, but I’m glad it happened because it has helped me to be a more supportive mum.

When our children do well at school or on the sports field or on the stage, we need to congratulate them and let them bask in the glory of the day. We don’t need to talk about their capacity to do more or go further. We don’t need to get them a super coach or enrol them in extra courses so that they will reach their full potential. Our job is to help them find what they’re passionate about and if we accidentally put too much pressure on them, we may be destroying that passion. If they ask for added help or extra challenges, we can decide if we’re able to give them more. But in the meantime, a win’s a win and there’s a lot to be learned from a loss and that’s about it.

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Empathy boosts your self-esteem


afraid looking woman with a phone isolated on whiteWhen a friend or family member seems upset or angry, do you worry that you might somehow be the cause of their pain? What have I done to upset them? Did I say the wrong thing?

How often do you actually ask the person if you’ve done anything wrong? If a friend is a little cold on the phone, do you worry that they are angry with you about something? Do you try to find another excuse to ring or text them in an attempt to make sure you’re in the clear? What happens to your self-esteem with all this worry about causing offence? Does it plummet until you get some kind of reassurance that they are not mad at you?

In more cases than not, your partner, friend or family member is not upset with you at all. They are simply having a bad day or they have something quite serious going on and you are the furthest thing from their mind. If you ask if you’ve done anything to upset them, then they have to reassure you that it’s nothing to do with you and explain what’s on their mind. Think about this for a moment … They are stressed and they have to make sure that you’re okay – so it’s not great for them. Even worse, it’s not good for you. That’s because the reassurance you get is addictive and you’ll find that you have to always check to see if you’ve done anything wrong. Constantly seeking reassurance is detrimental to your self-esteem.

What’s the answer? Take yourself out of the equation completely. Assume you’re innocent unless proven guilty. Have empathy for your friend. Ask them if they’re okay. Offer to listen if they feel like talking. Make it about them instead of you and not only will you be a better friend or partner, but you will also protect your self-esteem.




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