Transcription: A Recent Interview with Bill Simpson about Empathy In Relationships
Bill: I am speaking with marriage counselor Arlene Forman. We’re sitting on her porch looking at her garden, hearing the birds and enjoying the weather here. And today, we’re going to talk about the topic of empathy. First and foremost, Arlene, what is empathy? What does it mean?
Arlene: Empathy is my ability to first intend to go inside your mind and sense into it. I don’t exactly know. But I can sense, I can intuit what it’s like for you while I’m talking to you. And, you know, part of it is your mind. But I can see your eyes and I can see that your eyes are, like, open. I can see the smile on your face. What if you have a frown? What if your eyes are partly closed? Well, I need to intuit that too! Whatever’s happening, I need to have that information brought back to me so that now I have information on what’s going on with you while I’m talking to you. And if that information says, Arlene, this is great, you’re really connecting. I’ll keep going. If that information says, you know, there’s something about the way he looks, that there’s something not right. Well, I’m going to check it out.
Bill: I hear you say on a physical level, noticing, like, facial expressions and body language. What about going inside the mind?
Arlene: That, too! And it’s intuition that I can intuit. And the way I can Intuit is I’ve had your similar experience. At one time or another. So if I slow myself down, make an intention to know what it’s like for you, I may go inside my own mind and check – What would it have been like for me had that happened? And that helps me when I go inside your mind to intuit, and when I give you feedback on what I know, it’s not the truth. I don’t even know what the truth is. It’s just my ‘felt sense’ of what’s happening to you.
Bill: And it sounds like you’re making an effort to relate to that other person to connect when you do that.
Arlene: You know what you say is important because, you know, I’m making an effort, and you know what I get from clients? Sometimes that’s all they want! They just really want to know that you really want to listen and know who I am.
Bill: Maybe not to solve their problem, but just to listen to them, right?
Bill: That leads me to ask an obvious question: Why is it so important in a relationship?
Arlene: Because that’s the definition of a relationship. As we relate, we exchange information, we exchange energy. But how am I going to exchange if I didn’t take the time to sense what’s going on with you right now? It’s like a soliloquy that I’m throwing at you. I’m just talking and throwing it at you and you know it. You know, I have no intention to figure out what it’s like for you while I’m talking. So guess what you do? Shut down. It’s like, what’s the point?
Bill: Yeah, it’s like, you don’t see me. You don’t hear me?
Arlene: Yeah. Why bother? You sit there and fake it! I want to add something to that. We don’t even know what’s going on. That’s why I made this podcast, because we don’t even know that I’m not giving you empathy, and you don’t know you’re not getting it.
Bill: So all this is just subconscious stuff that’s going on?
Arlene: Yeah, it’s a whole other communication under the communication we’re having, and it’s the most important communication.
Bill: So it sounds like the key here is awareness – being aware that that’s going on?
Bill: So how do you do that? How do you be empathetic?
Arlene: Well, I start with what I call my ‘Watcher’. And the reason I call it a Watcher is I conceptualize there’s a part of me that’s outside watching me. Without the Watcher, sometimes I do things really stupid because I didn’t take the time to say, “Whoa! What’s happening here? What’s my best choice?” I just ‘blah, blah’ and make a mess.
Bill: So that subconscious behavior just comes right out without any awareness?
Arlene: Without any checks or balances. Right!
Bill: So you mentioned this ‘Watcher’. How do we find the Watcher?
Arlene: First, I would like to give you an example of a Watcher that I’ve had all my life that I knew. This Watcher is new for me. I would go to a party and on the way home, I would say, “Oh my god, that was so dumb. Why did I say that?” That’s my Watcher. “Too late!” I step outside myself. I observed myself at the party…
Bill: After the fact?
Arlene: Yeah. Well, what we’re learning is to get the Watcher out while I’m at the party talking.
Bill: So how do we do that? How do we find that Watcher while we’re in the moment?
Arlene: Most important is pause. I like to count. 5 is good. Backwards, even better. Anything to just distract myself, slow myself down. And now that I’ve quieted myself, I’m going to focus on the breath, and I’m going to take a short breath in, long, slow breath out. Short breath in, long, slow breath out. Slow everything down. Out comes the Watcher!
Bill: That sounds great! And I can see how that would give you pause to start to create awareness. Yet, if that subconscious is running, when do we know that that’s happening?
Arlene: You know, I just had that in a group the other day, and the way it was phrased was, “Yeah, it’s good to learn all this, but if I’m really mad, how am I ever going to get a Watcher?”
Arlene: And you know, I had a felon group who came because of anger management, and he said, “I’d train myself to do it”. He says, “I know now when I’m really mad, I just keep my mouth shut, slow everything down and figure out what I really want to say.”
Bill: And I could imagine feedback can come into play here if, like you said earlier, if you notice the reaction of someone’s face, or you know, maybe that’s a cue to get your Watcher out?
Arlene: My Watcher has to be out no matter what – no matter what kind of cues I’m getting from you, and not getting from you. My Watcher is for me, and my Watcher helps me to make a choice on how I want to behave. Without my Watcher, I got a 50/50 shot that I’m gonna like the way I’m behaving, so it’s really about me. Get my Watcher up, and from that place I watch what my body is doing. When you’re doing what you’re doing, I’m watching.
Bill: So what I’m hearing you say, it’s really our responsibility to find the Watcher and not have to depend on that feedback.
Arlene: Right. Watcher is not about feedback. Watcher is an existence – it’s just hanging out there and it’s just training the mind. It’s just watching. It’s not even telling me what to do. It’s just watching. It’s going, “Uh-oh, Arlene!”
Bill: Okay, so you find your Watcher and you slow down the breath. What do you do after that? Once you’ve paused and counted, take a few deep breaths. What do you do next?
Arlene: Choose! That’s what the Watcher is all about. When I can watch what’s going on inside, I can watch my belly on fire. I’m so mad at you! But if I can get my Watcher out, and my Watcher says, “Wow, you’re really fired up! You better not open your mouth. You’re going to make trouble!” That’s what the Watcher will do. It watches my belly. It watches what it feels like because that’s mostly like hurt and sadness. The anger is really in the neck, and the shoulders, and the back. So I would say, “I’m watching these muscles and my shoulders, my neck, my back – and they’re getting ready to attack. And I’m watching that.” And the Watcher says, “See, what are you going to choose?” And what I’m going to choose is “I love you!”. No matter how angry I am at you, I don’t want to hurt you.
Bill: So I’m hearing you talk about the body here as well as the mind. So there’s this mind-body connection. Can you say more about that?
Arlene: Well you know, Bill, you hear ‘mind-body’, but people don’t really mean that. They mean ‘mind-mind’. We’re not really taught to go inside and scan this body and use the Watcher to scan and watch. Where is my body kicking up a fuss? Maybe it’s in my heart. Maybe my heart is broken and I didn’t even know.
Bill: And you know, when I think of what you just said, I’m thinking about that subconscious, it seems like the body probably knows before your mind knows.
Arlene: That’s right. It’s called the ‘enteric brain’.
Bill: Enteric brain? Tell me more.
Arlene: It knows! The gut has neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, polyvagal nerve all wired into it, while the polyvagal nerve is coming straight out of the brainstem. And there’s more information in this ‘hot line’ going from the body to the brain than there is from the brain to the body.
Bill: So it sounds like paying attention to your body may help in that process.
Arlene: How about, number one – If I don’t know what’s going on in my body, it goes on its own trip. And if my Watcher were out, it would go, “No, we don’t want to hurt Bill!”
Bill: So I can imagine this takes practice, right?
Arlene: Absolutely! And what takes practice, is not practicing during the conflict.Too late!
Bill: So do it when you’re in a calm place?
Arlene: I’ll practice watching the water come out of the spigot in the sink and hit the bottom of the sink and splash. Back up.
Bill: So paying attention?
Arlene: Yeah. I’ll practice listening to the birds while I’m taking a walk.
Bill: Listening to the plane that’s flying above us right now.
Arlene: Exactly. Exactly. I’m practicing watching in a safe place, and then I can sit by myself and imagine that you said something really hurtful to me. And I’m going to practice getting my Watcher out, and I’m going to watch what my body is doing, and I’m going to watch what kind of choice I’m going to make, and how I respond to you.
Bill: So I’m imagining now that maybe I’m in a ‘couples session’ with you, with my partner or my wife, and we learn this, and then I go home and I do it a little bit. But then, I don’t do it. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. Like I said, it’s going to take practice.
Arlene: Well, and it takes commitment. You need to commit to “I don’t want to hurt my wife anymore, and this is a way to prevent that, to make choices she’ll want to hang out with me even if she hurt me.”
Bill: What if my partner is empathetic, and then other times she’s not? What do you do with that?
Arlene: I would slow down, take a breath, and say to her, “I feel unseen and I need you to sense me.”
Bill: By doing that, what I’m hearing you say is, “I know you can do this. I know you can be empathetic. So I feel safe enough to say to you, I need you to be empathetic”?
Arlene: Yeah. Right. And we’re going to assume she’s in this session with you with the same commitment. She doesn’t want to hurt you either.
Bill: And I know sometimes when you counsel people individually and not as a couple say, “I learn how to get my Watcher out, yet my wife doesn’t really know this.” Is it up to me to teach her?
Arlene: Don’t teach her. She doesn’t have to know. When you respond in a loving way, she can’t help it, you know. Dan Seigel says, “I create your brain! Your brain! When I respond in the loving way, I create loving neural pathways in your brain!
Bill: So by me changing my behavior and being more positive and loving, then that’s going to translate to you?
Arlene: Right! It’s much more efficient if she’s here with you. But I have helped many couples where I never met the other partner.
Bill: Yeah, simply by one person changing the other person either is or isn’t, but more than likely will.
Arlene: It’s a relationship and the brain – we’ve got a concept now, neuroplasticity – the brain is always changing till we die. And while I’m talking to you, I’m changing your brain.
Bill: And vice-versa?
Arlene: Right, and I want to change your brain in a way that your brain feels safe with me. And that’s my job!
Bill: So I see that enhancing the relationship and it’s making me think it could go the other way. If I’m full of negativity, is it going to do the same?
Arlene: If you’re full of negativity, and I’m not playing off that negativity, and I’ve got my Watcher out, and I stay centered in feeling what it’s like for you, and I might say to you, “Boy, I can see that what’s happening really scares you and you don’t know what to do.”
Bill: That’s if you have your Watcher out.
Bill: But if neither one of you are aware, then you’re just kind of sucked into this hole.
Arlene: Right. That’s exactly right! Sucked into this hole, and think you’re problem solving.
Bill: Yeah. Yeah. And that could go on forever.
Bill: Yeah. So that’s all good and well, getting your Watcher out to be empathetic yet I’m feeling really angry. And maybe I just don’t want to do it, you know? I just don’t want to make the effort. What do you say to that?
Arlene: Under all of this is a willingness to sit in the experience of the tightness of my shoulders, and my back, and breathe through it, so it can lift off of me, and I can choose behavior that will enhance our relationship, which is my highest value.
Bill: Right. So you’re saying is being willing to sit in the discomfort of those feelings physically, emotionally, and choose the higher value of the relationship?
Arlene: Right. You know, it’s important to scan the body and know that I have these sensations, but I’ve got to be willing to sit with it, and really be there and experience that. And the body in its own wisdom over time will lift that pain, frustration, anger off of you.
Bill: The more you do it, the better you get at it.
Arlene: That’s right.
Bill: It’s been great, Arlene. I really appreciate you clarifying and showing us how we can be more empathetic. How would you like to sum all this up today?
Arlene: I need to act in a way that you want to hang out with me or what’s the point of it?
Bill: Bottom line, right?
Bill: It makes a lot of sense! Yeah, yeah, absolutely! Well, it’s been a pleasure talking with you today, Arlene, and the beauty of your garden and back porch, and I just want to thank you for taking the time to do this today.
Arlene: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to share with you and for everybody that listens. What I know about how to make a relationship a love affair. That’s what it’s all about! And thank you for giving me that opportunity.
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