Connection & Empathy Before Problem Solving

Photo by  Josh Calabrese  on  Unsplash

One of the most important things that happens in family or relationship counseling is growth in, and practice of, adopting the perspective of another person.  Perspective taking is a versatile life skill that is helpful in everything from interviewing for a job to staying out of trouble in school. The better a person is at perspective taking, the more fully they can put themselves in another person’s shoes and the more effectively they can interact with that person.  Since no one lives in isolation, improving interactions with others is an investment that pays dividends all the time.

These benefits are even more significant in the relationships where we interact most frequently and often most abrasively: our family.  Let’s look at a common situation in families and how effective perspective taking can help.

Someone in your family is upset about something outside the family.  

Often our first response (especially with kids) is to dive into problem solving mode and try to fix things. This is a mistake because there are almost always at least three different problems and it is most effective (and strengthens your relationship the most) to address the other two problems before tackling the most obvious one.  

  1. The first problem is that the family member feels alone.  Being upset is isolating and studies have shown that simply removing aloneness can help improve someone’s outlook (click here for an example of one of these studies).  Perspective taking helps us understand what someone is experiencing and communicate that we are there for them.

  2. The second problem is that the family member is hurting.  No matter what feeling we express when we are upset, it springs from pain.  This could be physical pain but is most often relational. It also could be based on something the person is anticipating rather than something that has already happened. When we provide comfort, the pain goes away more quickly and becomes more bearable.  Perspective taking allows us to identify the pain and provide comfort more effectively. What I’ve outlined in these two steps could also be called empathy. To learn more about empathy, check out this blog post by one of our directors.

  3. Once the first two problems are addressed, you can help your loved one with their problem solving but after the first two problems are addressed, they are often able to solve their problem themselves.

Following the steps outlined above can often lead to significant improvements in family and couple relationships. Perspective taking can also be extremely helpful, and much harder, during conflict. 

If you would like help applying perspective taking in your relationships, I encourage you to reach out to a therapist.