What is a real conversation? One in which both people can speak and hear each other. Unfortunately, much of what passes for conversation does not meet this standard. This becomes more true as unpleasant emotion increases until people are simply hearing what they expect to hear and acting from their own reactive scripts, some of which can have little to do with the reality represented by the other person’s perspective.
The “Empathy Dialog Card Game” is a way of thinking about having real conversations with someone else, even when the conversation is difficult because it involves unpleasant emotion (see this article on intimacy strategies). The Empathy Dialog is something that I have taught and used with many people, including individuals, couples, and families. It is a simple formula for skillful disagreement, but it is not easy for people to do. The word “game” is used somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It is particularly useful when people talking agree to use it, but it’s always possible for one person to decide to use the principles modeled in the dialog.
Necessary foundation for an empathy dialog
There are several important foundation stones that need to be in place before even considering a real dialog. First and most importantly, are you capable of speaking your truth even when your partner is not able to validate that truth? Do you have the centeredness to know yourself and the strength to speak your truth even when it will not be received as you want it to be. This kind of maturity — a form of anti-defensiveness — is a huge plus when having conversations with your partner of any kind. Of course, no one has this set of skills without practice and the empathy dialog is a good way to practice this skill even as (and because) it focuses on validation of our partner.
Second, do you have a blank canvas? The metaphor is that in order to put something on a canvas (say black ink caligraphy), you need to start with a blank canvas — if the canvas is already full of black ink, you won’t even see the caligraphy you carefully add. So, having a blank canvas for a conversation means that you, yourself, are in a place where you can be skillful in conversation and the other person is also willing and able to talk. The more difficult the conversation, the more important it is to get a clear blank canvas before beginning. Ensuring a blank canvas might or might not involve explicit communication. For example, “Hey, there’s something difficult I wanted to talk about that’s been on my mind. Would now be a good time to talk about it?” Anything other than a clear and sincere “yes” should be treated like a “no”. If there’s no blank canvas, try again another time. If there’s never a blank canvas, you’re most likely in stone-walling territory which is a very negative place to be for a relationship (see this article on this and the other 3 of the 4 Horsemen of a Relationship Apocolypse).
The third foundation stone is the concept of a meta-conversation. Although a useful concept in its own right, it is often a useful sub-category of getting a blank canvas. If you’ve never had a conversation like an empathy dialog before, it would be best to first have a conversation about whether the other person is open and willing to have a conversation of that type. You are having a conversation about conversation itself — thus, meta-conversation.
The final foundation stone is to be sincere. Although there’s a simple formula suggested by the empathy dialog, all of the rules are secondary to the importance of being sincere.
The Empathy Dialog
In any case, notice that there are two parts: a speaker and a listener. The speaker begins and follows the form on the card: I feel [x emotion] (because…). My request is Y. Speaker needs to keep their piece short and simple (KISS). The listener then summarizes the speaker word-for-word. The hardest part of using this dialog is our own reactivity and defensiveness. We are often so busy focusing on our hurt feelings or our own response to what someone is saying that we simply don’t listen. Even if we do listen, defensiveness can prevent us from actually hearing what the other person is saying. I see this all the time in my therapy practice with couples. And, it’s understandable! Can we agree that actually hearing what has been said is a necessary precondition for a real conversation?
After the summary comes validation that basically conveys the message: you are a reasonable person for feeling that way under those circumstances. It is not necessarily agreement (although agreement is a good validation). Empathy is an important final piece. Although not always necessary, the more emotion that is present, the more important is is. There are books written on the subject, but the short version is that empathy is when the listener is able to experience the same (or similar) emotion as the speaker and convey that fact through words and body language. Saying “I understand” is illegal here: empathy is not about saying you understand; it’s about showing that understanding.
One caveat: even skillful communication doesn’t work in every circumstance or with everyone (particularly those afflicted with the “Unholy Trinity” of perceptiveness, defensiveness, and lack of self-awareness). One example of the complications that can arise that demand a pretty subtle mastery of skills: there can sometimes arise what we could call the “simultaneous listener problem” — both people need to be heard at the same time, thus no one feels heard, and the disagreement quickly devolves into unskillful second quadrant territory.
A friend brought to my attention the following article that talks about rule for engaging in political discussions with people. Very similar to the empathy dialog.
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