The Imago Dialogue: Empathy (Step 3)

Over the month of June, I will provide a series of blogs on the Imago Dialogue.  The first blog will introduce the dialogue, and the following three will detail its steps – mirroring, validation, and empathy.  The dialogue is a powerful communication tool that can transform your relationship.  Want to learn more?  The series sets the stage for the Start Right, Stay Connected workshop that I’ll be leading on June 24 where you’ll learn to practice this skill and more.


In the Imago Dialogue, the final step – Empathy – is what so often provides the big payoff in helping couples feel more connected.  After you have mirrored and validated your partner, empathy invites you to guess into their world of feeling and join them there.

Mirroring communicates listening.  Validation honors perspective.  Empathy fuels connection.  In the words of Brene Brown, “Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection.”  (Watch her hilariously funny animated short on Empathy here).  When a partner says, “I imagine this leaves you feeling disappointed and hurt” and they’re on target it engenders closeness and healing.  Or “I imagine this leaves you feeling loved and supported,” and they’re accurate, it forges the relationship bond.”

It is important to tease out the difference between sympathy and empathy.  After someone we know experiences the death of a loved one, we send cards letting know we feel sorry for their loss or offer to bring them dinner.  Don’t get me wrong, these expressions of sympathy are very important ways of helping.  Empathy, however, requires something more.  Empathy says to the person, “I’m willing to go into the dark hole with you.”  It requires that I connect with the part of myself that has felt the same feeling, and this can be very uncomfortable.

As I write this, it is the day after the memorial service for my father-in-law who passed away a few months ago.  I’d like to think that I’m offering more than sympathy to my wife.  I’d like to think that I’m offering the compassion that empathy brings; walking with her through this difficult time, as much as there is a part of me that would love try to simply make her feel better.  But I know that this type of problem solving typically falls short.  Rather, I trust that it is through our connection where healing comes.  This is the miracle of empathy.


Previously in this series:

Come learn how to play egg toss – and communicate more effectively – at my upcoming “Start Right, Stay Connected” workshop on June 24.  This one-day workshop for committed, engaged and newly married couples will provide the knowledge and skills to transform your relationship.  Click here for more details and registration.

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