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Professional Columns -
Relationships by Dr. Bill Austin


Empathy is a wonderful trait to have. It has been described as leaning into another person so we can feel what they feel. Empathy is learning to see things through another's eyes rather than seeing it through ours. As an empathetic person, we provide space for others to share their feelings without judgment or ridicule.

People often try to be empathetic by attempting to connect their stories with ours. "I can relate to that because I have had a similar experience." According to Stephen Covey, author of Everyday Greatness, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, rather they listen with the intent to share their own stories." He points out that when people say, "I understand your pain" or "I can relate to that," it is usually a prelude to offering advice.

Listening is an essential component of empathy. Confucius is quoted as saying, "When we listen, we listen with eye, ear, head, and heart."

When we listen with our eyes, we understand the entire message. (Non-verbal language is 80 percent of communication.)

When we listen with our ears, we hear the words that the other person has chosen for self-expression.

How many times have we said,
"I can relate to that"
and then proceeded to share
our similar experience?

When we listen with our heads, we understand the meaning behind the words.

When we listen with our hearts, we understand the feelings behind the words.

But how many times do we say, "I can relate to that," and proceed to share our similar experience? We think we are helping, but often we stop the other person from telling their story, shifting the focus to ours.

I went through a tough time when my father died. He passed without any warning. It was as though my world had been turned upside down. A part of my identity and security system had been uprooted. I felt anxious, as well as sad. Oh, yes, and there was the guilt. My mind went to an experience just before he died when I was upset with him for running our boat into a sand bar. Of course, when I heard he had died, my mind went right to that episode. While Dad's death was painful, something good happened to me.

I found that when I would visit or talk with someone who had lost a loved one, I could understand their feelings. I knew what it felt like to be an orphan as an adult. I did not need to tell them my story or talk them out of their grieving. Instead, I drew on my emotional experiences. For example, I asked one person who had recently lost their parent if they felt like an orphan. "Oh, yes. I felt like a child being abandoned on the doorstep," was her reply. We need to use the authority of our own feelings to help others process theirs.

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Dr. Austin has decades of experience dealing with relationships. He charges clients on a sliding scale according to their ability to pay. His first book, Creating Our Safe Place: Articles on Healthy Relationships, was published in 2004. His second book, Keeping It Safe, was published in 2009 and can be purchased through,, and at the Parrish Book Store in Virginia Beach.  He is also a sought-after speaker at meetings and seminars.

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