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Communicating Emotion to Invite Empathy

Often in marriage or another relationship, we think we have an intimacy problem when really it’s more about a boundary problem.

Boundaries between people get blurred if either one tries to share their “feelings” by sharing their perceptions of the other person. This blurs boundaries and leads to conflict. Instead, if you share your personal experience or emotions then you’ll invite the response of empathy (tenderhearted listening and acceptance) that you need.

A powerful communication and conflict resolution technique to help you foster genuine intimacy in your relationships is “When You Did ‘A’ I Experienced ‘B’”.

Notice, I’m using the word “experience” rather than “feel” in order to focus on your personal emotions, not your perceptions of the other person. Separating out emotions about me from perceptions about you is crucial. These need to be clearly distinguished.

Many relational problems are due to a lack of personal boundaries differentiating each person from the other. When two people’s emotions, ideas, needs, or responsibilities get intertwined like spaghetti it causes problems. We call this an “enmeshed” relationship. This lack of emotional differentiation causes stress, conflict, even a feeling of suffocation.

Think about a recent situation in which someone hurt or stressed you.

Now, let’s apply the tool. Imagine talking to this person about this conflict. In your communication you want to do two things:

(A) Be specific about the situation as you remember it, explaining it in a factual manner.

(B) Express how your emotions in that situation. (Emotions are portals into your heart and soul.) You’re not expressing your perceptions but rather your personal experience, emotion, or need.

The ‘A’ needs to be very short and the ‘B’ longer. Because the ‘B’ part is about you. You’re taking ownership of the feeling, problem, or need you have (strengthening your personal boundaries). You’re asking for empathy.

Using “I feel” statements takes the pressure off your relationship. You are inviting your friend to step into your skin. “I have this problem and I need your understanding. I need you to listen to my feelings.”

(It’s helpful to use “I feel” statements with the Lord in prayer. For instance, we guide you to do this in our Lectio Divina Guides.)

When you communicate in this manner it is not aggravating, it is not exhausting, and it is not burdensome. It’s a blessing because it’s cultivating emotional intimacy. Even if you don’t get a good result in your relationship, it will still be healthy and strengthening for your soul and identity.

Learn not to communicate by making “You statements”! When you do this you’re putting expectations on the other, pointing a finger. You’re enmeshing with the person — perhaps even saying “I feel” but really you’re putting out your perceptions of what the other person feels. It’s emotionally draining to listen to this.

The success of communicating emotion to invite empathy (and diminish anxiety and conflict in your relationship) hinges on you becoming more aware of how you feel, what you need, and taking responsibility for yourself. “This is in me… This is about me… This is my stuff… This is what I need help with…”

Related Resources:

ReadA & B Conflict Resolution Tool” (Gives examples of communicating emotions in a healthy way.)

Listen toThe Pressure to Please” (Soul Talks podcast)



Listen to this week’s SoulTalk: These stressful times have increased isolation. And for many, isolation is already a frequent experience due to childhood pain. Let Bill and Kristi’s conversation shed light on the ways that isolation plays out in your family and relationships, keeping you from experiencing intimacy. It will help you grow in loving and trusting relationships with others and with God–and thrive!


To listen to more Soul Talks episodes about family dynamics you can go back and listen to episodes 123-129.

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