How to Communicate With Empathy

Communication is the key to unlocking understanding, intimacy, and connection between two people" (Cook, 2018).  More often than not, when a couple comes for marriage counseling, there is a communication problem.  Good communication is the foundation of a solid marriage.  If the foundation of communication is cracked, then the stability of the marriage is compromised.  Tony Gaskins says it this way: "Communication is to relationships like oxygen to life.  Without dies."  In this post, I will share about empathic communication.

I love to read, learn, and share with others things that I have found to be helpful to me.  I am particularly interested in things that address interpersonal relationships, particularly marriages.  I am keenly aware that good communication is considered the holy grail of a good marriage.  If you are like me, you may not think much about that concept because you consider yourself a good communicator.  However, I came across an article written by Lawrence J. Bookbinder entitled "Empathy, Listening Skills, and Relationships."  I quickly decided I had room for much improvement.

According to Webster's Dictionary, empathy is "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner."  It follows then that empathic communication is communication that is characterized or based on empathy.

There are at least three important elements of empathic communication: (1) the capacity to feel what the other person is experiencing from their internal perspective; (2) the capacity to be open to the other person's experience without being intolerant or judgmental; and (3) the capacity to interact in an empathic manner.  These three elements comprise what Lawrence J. Bookbinder refers to as empathic acknowledgement.  Empathic acknowledgement is "listening, empathizing, and acknowledging what the other person said and his or her experience" (Bookbinder, August 26, 2018).  If one extends to another empathic acknowledgment, he or she has essentially given to the other a "psychological hug."

Have you ever had a conversation with someone where you truly experienced empathic acknowledgment?  That is, you sensed they really "got" what you were feeling at that moment, that they were listening to your words as well as your soul, all without judging you.  If you have, then you know the value of experiencing empathic acknowledgment.  Furthermore, if you have experienced empathic acknowledgment, then you know how others could benefit from receiving such.  However, according to Bookbinder, less than 2% of interactions that take place between people involve the "empathic acknowledgment" of the other.  That makes me even more aware that much of the communication within the context of marriage takes place on a superficial level.

As I alluded to in the first paragraph of this post, I thought I was a decent communicator until I came across this concept of empathic communication.  Now I know that I have a lot of work to do in order to become a better communicator.  In fact, I have better insight as to why my wife often says to me, "You are not listening to me."  It was not that I did not hear the words that she was saying, but rather it was that I was not empathically acknowledging her.  Later, it would dawn on me that as I acknowledged her in this manner, I was relaying to her that I valued her.

Basic skills involved in empathic communication or acknowledgment include (Bookbinder, August 26, 2018): 

(1) Listening to the other person without interrupting;

 (2) Listening with your head and heart; 

(3) Focusing not just on the words the person is saying, but also the meaning the words have for the other person; 

(4) Asking for clarification when needed; 

(5) Resisting the urge to help or interrupt; 

(6) Being fully present with the other person; and 

(7) Resisting the urge to help or interrupt. 

As I read the list of basic empathic communication skills, I reflected on prior conversations I have had with my wife, that were not so successful.  There were times that I would interrupt my wife with a brilliant solution to whatever she was relating to me.  Of course, more times than not, my interruptions and proposed solutions would either dampen or stop the flow of communication.  In reality, she did not need me to propose a solution to her.  Instead, she needed me to provide empathic acknowledgment and to give her a "psychological hug."

Assuming that you are the listener/acknowledger, some of the benefits of using empathic communication skills include (Bookbinder, August 26, 2018):  

(1) Absorbing and experiencing some of the joy, clarity, and peace that the talker experiences; 

(2) Feeling good about giving the other person an opportunity to talk about something that is important to them; 

(3) Reducing conflict or avoiding an argument with another through careful listening and mutual inquiry; 

(4) Broadening your horizons by deeply listening to another who may have views and values that are different than your own; and 

(5) Feeling psychologically hugged by the talker.

On the other hand, if you are the talker, benefits of empathic acknowledgment include: (1) making sense of a puzzling experience/situation; (2) becoming aware of unconscious feelings; (3) experiencing relief from distress; (4) feeling less alone; and (5) experiencing relief from health problems such as insomnia and headaches (Bookbinder, August 26, 2018).

I am wondering how your marriage relationship might be positively impacted if you used empathic communication with your spouse?  Perhaps your spouse could use a psychological hug.


Bookbinder, L. J. (n.d.).  Empathy, listening skills & relationships.  Retrieved from

Cook, E.  (2018).  The marriage counseling workbook: 8 steps to a strong and last relationship.  Althea Press: Emeryville, CA.