A recent study highlighted the fact that allowing for a more open expression of emotions was related to marital satisfaction. I was talking with a couple this morning, and the husband, Ken, said, “I stop talking because I don’t want to hurt my wife’s feelings.” As we talked, it became clear that his stopping talking was probably more hurtful than anything he was going to say.
As we talked, the man added, “I really don’t feel comfortable with emotions. I don’t know what to do.” I gave him the following assignment. It’s based on the work of Paul Ekman, at the University of San Francisco, who has spent years studing emotions and facial expressions. He says that the face is the universal language of emotions.
So I said to Ken, “I want you to study your wife’s face. I want you to notice her expressions as you talk together. When you see a look you don’t understand, stop the conversation and ask her, ‘What are you feeling when you make that face?’” Then I told him to make notes about what she says, and to become very analytical about his wife’s face.
His wife loved the assignment. At last she was going to have his attention! Why is reading his wife’s emotions such a problem for men? All you need to do to get the answer to that question is to watch a group of kids on a school’s playground. What are the little boys doing? Competing! What are most of the little girls doing? Relating. The boys are involved in a competitive game, while the girls sit together and talk to each other. Oh yes, there are a few girls playing the competitive games, but they aren’t playing to win–they just want to be with the kids playing the game.
So what’s empathy got to do with all of this. Empathy begins with the ability to read the other person’s emotions accurately, and the face is always the giver of that information.
And there are other skills you can develop to become more empathic. For example, focus on listening for emotional messages. Even the expression of a negative emotional statement can give you clues about what’s actually being said. For example, your wife may be criticizing you for having been gone all week and you now want to play golf. What’s her emotional message? Probably something like “I miss you, and I’m afraid I’m not important to you.”
You’ll get a clue to that “hidden” message if you hold back and resist the urge to defend yourself. Then take a guess at the emotion behind the criticism. You might say, “Yeh, I know I’ve been gone a lot. I’m sorry.” Even if your guess is wrong, your attempt to respond empathically to the emotional message will lead to a correction from her that will help your next guess hit the bulls-eye. Your effort will pay great dividends!