Great Talk: Real Communication and the Empathy Dialog

Competency in basic relationship skills is a key component of moving from our dysfunctional status quo to a future of thriving on one planet’s worth of resources (one planet thriving). Building relationships and community are two necessary social technologies. The heart of these social technologies is dealing with reality instead of using avoidance. Being able to have a real conversation is key.

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 simple standard. This becomes more true as unpleasant emotion increases, with people often 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 difficult conversations with your partner. 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, and probably even more difficult for most, can you hear someone else’s truth even when you don’t agree with it, and it is triggering some unpleasant emotion for you? Many people cannot actually hear what someone has said. Instead, they “hear” their interpretation of what was said and this is often a very inaccurate version.

My experience working with couples suggests that most people cannot do both #1 and #2 unless they have already invested in a lot of work regulating their own emotion, through mindfulness practice, 12-step programs, therapy, or the luck of being raised in a family that teaches these skills.

Third, make sure it’s a good time to talk for you and the other person. If it’s not a good time, don’t talk. The more difficult the conversation, the more important it is to make sure it’s a good time to talk first. Are you tired, sick, drunk, irritable, stressed from the day, kids going nuts, dog barking incessently, a combination of all of the above? Not a good time to talk, right? So, don’t do it. Ideally, both conversational partners can take responsibility for ensuring it’s a good time to talk simply by being aware of their internal state and the current environment and setting limits accordingly. 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”. For example, if your partner looks at you in exasperation with a heavy sigh and says, “Fine, what?!”, that’s probably a “no”. Just try again some other time. If there is never a good time, however, 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 fourth 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

With those foundations in place, the empathy dialog provides a structure to return to in a difficult conversation. 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 of need Y. My request is behavior Z. 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 often 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.

Finally, skillful disagreement is an art with many components. This article on intimacy strategies provides a framework for when skillful disagreement is necessary and has further links to specific guidelines needed, including avoiding the four horsemen of a relationship apocalypse.

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.








8 thoughts on “Great Talk: Real Communication and the Empathy Dialog”

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  5. Russ P gave permission to publish his question: “I’m curious; how can one find empathy when the facts demonstrate deceit and/or self-indulgence has been practiced w/o regret?”

    Here’s my answer:
    One of the things I like about the article you posted (the one linked above re: political discussions) is that the author suggests finding a couple of points of agreement as an active listener. Agreement can be very validating (2nd step in the empathy dialog) and is often all that people can really do. Empathy is about the other person’s emotions, not their behavior. Let’s say someone is hating. We can all understand hatred and even empathize with it. Otherizing of all kinds — racism, sexism — is often based on an unpleasant emotion of some kind: fear, anger, etc. We have all felt those emotions and can empathize with them. Having said that, empathy is the hardest step for most people. Under some (many?) circumstances, empathy is Buddha-Jesus-Gandhi territory — meaning almost impossible even if we were as capable as all those folks put together.

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