I know just how you feel

I daresay that we can all look back on our lives and identify points and incidents when we learnt something so important that it, at least to some significant degree, changed us forever.

One such incident was when I learned to use empathy. That doesn’t sound very exciting, after all empathy is a common human reaction. So let me tell you how it same about.

Back in the ‘60s I was trained as a marriage counsellor. I had felt that I had a pretty broad knowledge of human nature and I had no difficulty in analysing situations so that I could distil and give some excellent advice. What a benefit I was to all my friends!

But I quickly discovered that it was very hard to help anyone before I had looked at his or her situation from his or her point of view. Empathy did not mean sympathy but it did mean understanding, and communicating my understanding, of where a person was coming from. I had to see the situation first through their eyes, and only then through mine.

We were put into little groups to practise this. Another trainee counsellor would imitate a client and, instead of interpreting or giving advice, I had to say “You feel X because Y.” So, for instance, “You feel angry with your husband because he won’t spend enough time with the children.” The client then will know that they have been understood or they will freely refine our understanding if need be.

That sounds too simple and formulaic, and one can argue that all I was doing was reflecting what the client had said but in my own words. But in fact it caused a revolution in my attitude. By really working at grasping my client’s feelings and the reasons for them, I was relating to them quite differently. And I was discovering that when they truly felt understood they were much readier to look at how they could change their behaviour. And much of that attitude spread into my personal life and relationships.

If you think that cannot be true, or think that, if it is true it is negligible. I offer you a challenge.

The next time someone (child, a spouse, a friend?) says something to you about themselves, don’t react as you might automatically but use “You feel…because…” And keep using it until you have the whole picture. Be prepared for a longer conversation – this may be the first time anyone has really listened to your friend and they won’t throw up the opportunity to be heard at last.

This is not a parlour trick. Getting into the habit of being more interested in what the other person has to say than in what we have to say, goes against our egoistic grain. That means that it is a habit which we have to work at every day.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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38 Responses to I know just how you feel

  1. tim says:

    Yes – the importance of good habits (of which this is definitely one). Probably has some physiological correlation (mirror neurons?). Very easy to forget to do (like other advice of the same kind) unless you practise constantly.

  2. tim says:

    Also (I have to carp) you need to be careful about saying “I know just how you feel’, at least until you’ve given your understanding and your friend has accepted it. To say that, and then give an interpretation that your friend finds wrong, may not go down well.

    • st.joseph says:


      • mike Horsnall says:

        Yes, these mechanisms can easily backfire. I remember very clearly many years ago being terribly upset about something and going to talk to a friend about it. My friend was a social worker and knew all the right conversational cues but as soon as I recognised the methodology I felt rather cheapened and devalued somehow I realised she was only doing her best but never shared a confidence with her again. I worked for Samaritans for several years and the same thing applied, there were tools of the trade but they had to be used carefully. I also think that these reflective tools can be used as power play too-ways to insulate oneself from another as much as anything else.

      • John Candido says:

        That is a perceptive comment by Mike Horsnall. Being aware of the legitimate ‘methodology’ of counsellors, such as techniques called ‘active listening’ as well as others, is a hazard of perceptive and intelligent clients. Everything that Mike Horsnall said in relation to these techniques is true. I suppose the only salve of Social Workers and others, is to employ these techniques sparingly, surreptitiously, and if possible, only as a vehicle of genuine empathy, not a fake one, or one where I haven’t really got the time to listen to you. Being a counsellor is a difficult business. And it is especially so when you are dealing with knowledgeable clients.

      • Quentin says:

        I suspect that this is not in practice quite the problem it may appear on first sight. At least that was not my experience over 20 years of counselling. The phrase “you feel…because…” is only there in a formulaic shape because it is an exercise through which counsellors learn to grasp the concept. Of course they learn to use their own words, but the reminder of the formula keeps them close to the spirit. Would, for instance, st joseph feel that I was being formulaic if I were to say to her: “You are enthusiastic about NFP because so many of the people to whom you taught the method found it invaluable.”?

        As a matter of interest my wife and I were counsellors at the same time. And we have often found it useful in our own relationship to set aside, say, a half hour for one of us to explain how they felt about an issue, and for the other to listen and confirm they have understood the feelings and the reason for them. Of course we knew that the “counsellor” in that case was using methods in which we had both been trained.

        And I should say that, in many real life counselling cases, teaching the couple how to express their own feelings and to listen to the feelings of their partner was the key to turning a mutually destructive situation into a mutually growing situation.

  3. Nektarios says:

    Fellow Bloggers,

    Marital breakdown, family breakdown work breakdown, friends breaking up and so on,
    highlights for us all the issue of relationship.
    What does it mean to relate actually?

    • st.joseph says:

      That is a good question.

      I may be far away from the truth, however.
      Do unto others what you would want to be done to yourself.

      The most important thing I would wan’t for myself if I didnt know , is to be told about Jesus and His love for us, what He did for us, and what His Father prepared for us that love Him . That is easier said than done. How do we do it, that is the question?

  4. Nektarios says:

    st joseph
    it doesn’t seem mankind has got the right hande on what it means to relate…….yet!

  5. Nektarios says:

    St Joseph
    hande should read – HANDLE

  6. st.joseph says:

    Mike, All you need to do is read the CCC 645. If Jesus was a Spirit, where was His Body.?We exhausted this in a previous post!
    He bore the wounds of His Crucifixion, and ate and drank with His Apostles.And was still able to be unrecognised, and walk through doors.
    I don’t believe you are asking this.
    Surely that is Mystery enough- to know that the Lord can do anything.
    We all understand that Gods time is not our time!
    This does not mean that all this ‘eveloution theory’ is true.

  7. st.joseph says:

    Mike this reply is meant for your comment on ‘The eyes have it’
    Sorry I dont know how it happened.
    Only it jumped and when I went down to reply again it ended up here.
    Most likely my bad computering!!
    Sorry Quentin!

  8. John Candido says:

    I think that empathy is the very kernel of love itself, which in turn, is at the centre and purpose of Christianity and our ordinary lives. Generally speaking, when empathy fails, society fails. It’s that simple and that important. The Catholic Church naturally places great store in empathy. She has taught the same for two thousand years. Most recently, the Second Vatican Council in ‘Gaudium et Spes’ or the ‘Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World’, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html states that…

    ‘1. The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.’

    Truly beautiful! I don’t think that I have ever read a more perfect expression of empathy, from any other document from the Second Vatican Council. There are many passages in scripture that point to empathy. On hearing that Lazarus had died, we know in John 11: 35, his reaction: ‘Jesus wept’. In Romans 12: 15-16 we have, ‘Be happy with those who are happy, weep with those who weep. Have the same concern for everyone.’ (Good News Bible, Catholic Edition 1976).

    It is easy to forget the value of democracy as it relates indirectly to things such as empathy. Empathy and justice can be found in important aspects of cosmopolitan societies. For example, free elections, a free press, the rule of law, the independence of our police force, the judiciary, the legal principle of double jeopardy, the parliament, the monarchy, the separation between church and state, etc. etc.

    The riots in Greece and the UK have as their antecedents, a socially perceived lack of integrity, in important institutions such as governments and businesses. These cases render the social fabric of our communities in a deleterious state. It is quite likely that society will look back at the extraordinary pay rises of executives, which are a product of corrupt practices by the membership of business boards, as a clear case of society losing its sense of proportionality, and integrity.

    In this case the loss of empathy lies in job losses to help pay for these extraordinary salaries. To compound matters, governments use taxpayer’s money in order to bail-out important institutions such as banks and other important pillars of the economy. They have been caught entering into questionable business investments and practices such as questionable loans to vulnerable people, as well as the use of secrecy jurisdictions for tax avoidance purposes.

    Because these institutions cannot be allowed to fail, they are even more beholden to society to act reasonably and for the common good. Any society that boasts about the wealth of some of its citizens is playing with fire. The growing gap between the wealthy and the poor is a shameless scandal of our contemporary society. It renders and tares at the fragile consensus of our communities in dangerous ways.

    In my home state of Victoria, there have been terrible headlines in the news about child abuse by Catholic priests and religious. It has been estimated that about 40 suicides are related to, (this number is expected to go higher) and it is suggested that they have a causal relationship with the experience of sexual abuse by one priest called Fr. Gerald Ridsdale and Brother Robert Best of the diocese of Ballarat in Victoria.

    You can read more about this sad state of affairs from here, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/churchs-suicide-victims-20120412-1wwox.html.

    Ms. Judy Courtin, who is a lawyer and a PhD student at Monash University in Melbourne, has done considerable research into the abuse of minors by Roman Catholic clergy. As part of her work, she has conducted many interviews with victims and their families. It would have taken a lot of empathy in order to collect the many and sad stories of peoples’ suffering. Speaking about the effects of this insidious and evil abuse of children,

    ‘There is evidence of life-long harm from these crimes for the victims and their families. This harm includes: suicide; attempted suicide; depression; post-traumatic stress disorder; alcohol and drug addiction; loss of education and employment opportunities; difficulties with forming relationships; grief; anger; breakdown of families and a destruction of people’s faith. The economic and social impact of these problems is immeasurable.’ (The Age newspaper, dated the14th April 2012, & accessed on the 17th April 2012).

    The story of her work can be accessed from here, http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/the-truth-deserves-a-commission-20120413-1wz1s.html

    Finally, a one sentence comment from a reader of ‘The Age’ faithfully summarises everything. Referring to the lack of a timely and sensitive response of His Grace, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart D.D., and his diocese’s problems with clergy abuse,

    ‘It is clear that Archbishop Hart has been promoted beyond his ability to empathise.’ (Joy Stapleton, of Darraweit Guim, The Age newspaper, page 12, 16th April 2012, & accessed on the 17th April 2012). How apt!

    • Nektarios says:

      John Candido

      In your various links you give and highlight in your posting above, such issues and the sorrows they produce I am sure we can all see agree with you – well researched!

      However, it is your very first sentence I find I cannot agree with, where you say:
      “I think that empathy is the very kernal of love itself, which in turn, is at the center and purpose of Christianity and our ordinary lives.”

      You gave us a great deal of information on the woes, sorrows sufferings and you put this down to a lack of empathy or love.
      I think you are mixing love and empathy up, John.

      Where you there is sorrow, there cannot be love.
      There can be sympathy, pity, tolerance, empathy, but generousity,sympathy, pity is not love.
      Love may contain all that, or have all that, but the parts don’t make the whole.
      One can gather, muster all the sympathy, empathy, kindness, generousity, friendship on can, but that is not love.

      • John Candido says:

        You are free to disagree with me. I still maintain that at the centre of love is empathy.

  9. Quentin says:

    It might be helpful to be clear on how would define empathy. My own definition would be: an ability and a wish to understand how our neighbour feels in a relevant context – without necessarily feeling the same. I would distinguish that from sympathy which requires us to share that feeling. Thus I do not have sympathy with a mother who chooses abortion, but I must have empathy.

    Defined in this way, empathy is a necessary constituent of love. But it is not the actual substance of love since I am free to respond to my empathic understanding, or to refuse to respond.

    Of course, if your definition of empathy includes response you may be right. But only if.

  10. Nektarios says:

    Quentin & John Candido

    Empathy or sensitivity is that which understands another completely, not partially, but most do not have such relationship at all. their relationship is built on conflict.
    To listen to another without criticism, just to be aware. That gives you great sensitivity, empathy
    so your body is subtle, sensitive to everything going on around you without choice. Just to be aware.
    Love may contain empathy as I have said, but it is never the other way around. Before anything was, Love was. That love is timeless, that love is not an attribute of God, but God.
    God always operated in a totality.
    That is why I say empathy, sympathy may be contained in love, yet at the same time, love is not empathy.
    You see, we do not posess love, it possess us. Similarly, empathy, sensitivity, are enhanced
    under the influence of love, but that does not make empathy ` the kernal of love’.

  11. John Nolan says:

    I got involved in conversations last weekend on quite intellectual, even abstruse subjects, and although I was interested in what the others had to say, and indeed learned something, I was probably more concerned with making sure my own contributions were aired. I am told that inability to listen is a male trait, and I often think that women are better listeners. Men listen to women attentively only if they seek to seduce them. As usual, Thackeray put it perfectly:

    The reddest lips that ever have kissed,
    The brightest eyes that ever have shone,
    May pray and whisper, and we not list,
    Or look away, and never be missed,
    Ere yet ever a month is gone.

  12. mike Horsnall says:

    Ho ho ho! Its not quite true, John. I sometimes listen to women simply because they fascinate me. Sure the ‘seduction button’ has probably been pressed somewhere along the way but then so, almost immediately the ‘cancel seduction you are married ‘ programme has kicks in-I still listen to the women though…better say men only listen to women attentively if they like what they see..!

  13. st.joseph says:

    How can you feel sexually attracted to another women when you are in love with your wife.?

  14. Iona says:

    I had treatment from a physiotherapist a couple of years when I’d sprained my ankle. She was also the physiotherapist for a local rugby team. “It’s very difficult”, she said, “because, being men, they don’t listen”.
    St. Joseph – I can’t anticipate Mike’s answer, but I’m quite sure there’s nothing mutually exclusive about a man’s being sexually attracted to more than one woman at a time.

  15. st.joseph says:

    I posted an article on here a while back on HolyEucharist and Holy Matrimony- by Dr Kippley.
    I would hope most catholics would understand that.
    In love with the Lord , Trinitarian Love- surely then sexual attraction with someone else in not in the frame.
    I know Mike said he controlled it, but the Lord ought to be always on our mind.
    I may be naive. and if I am I apologise I dont mean to offend.

  16. st.joseph says:

    Mike ,I assume we are made the same spiritually!
    And love the Lord and His Blessed Mother the same.
    Looking at people of the opposite sex and admiring their beauty, is a natural instinct, but however fellings of sexual intercourse-which is a physical feeling and if we love the Lord our God with our whole heart and our whole mind and our whole soul ,as I said sex alone does not enter the frame.
    I did not marry my late husband through sexual feelings alone.There is more to marriage than that.
    The programme on Marriage the other week from catholics. One women said that a lot of women in time gone by, married their boyfriend to sleep with them, as the church did not allow that before marriage.
    How sad is that. If all marriages depended on that without the Lord-are we surprised that so many fail.
    John Kippley wrote his article in 1967 before Humanae Vitae. and long before Theology of the Body. Maybe it was he who gave the Church a better understanding of Matrimony .
    Mike this is too deep a subject to discuss here. Read John Kippley.

  17. mike Horsnall says:

    “….if we love the Lord our God with our whole heart and our whole mind and our whole soul…”

    ST Joseph,
    I don’t want to discuss sex here either its too personal a subject. But on the more general topic of your above quote regarding loving the lord…can you find me one person on this earth who manages to do that? Can you find me even one person on this earth who would claim to do so? We are talking on here about empathy andI doubt any of us pon this blog could claim to place God first in their heart at all times in all places under every circumstance..can you? Do you?

  18. st.joseph says:

    Mike I will be presumptious enough to say YES. But in the end only the Lord knows if it is enough.
    If one says NO, then at 71, one ought to be questioning their selves .
    You can Ho ho ho to that as much as you like.
    What do you believe that the Sacrament of Marriage is all about!Only to bring us closer to the Lord!
    In Holiness.With the help of the Eucharist.
    With this belief., the Lord makes us humble!! And thankful for all the Gifts and the opportunitys to receive them. And not a minute of the day ought to pass where He is ever on our minds!

  19. Nektarios says:

    st. joseph

    I hate to disagree with you, you know I do, but does not God’s Word tell us, He is not in all
    our thoughts…. and His thoughts are higher than ours?

    Let me tell you a personal story when I was a young Christian.
    When it came to issues of sex, and the like I was not interested at all really as I was too busy with the things of God, learning theology, discussing constantly with others, asking questions. One could say, I was thinking about God 24/7 then.

    But I was not aware of what the enemy of my soul was up to in those days. Just how quick he could attack one out of the blue, I was about to find out.
    One evening, I was going out to a prayer meeting in a city called Aberdeen. It was a lovely warm summer evening, but with a bit of a breeze. It was just at the time when mini-skirts came in and was all the fashion.
    A girl in front of me was wearing a mini-kilt – when I say mini, I mean, really mini.
    She was about half way across the road, when I stepped off the pavement to cross the road.

    A breeze came and blew her mini-kilt up from behind…. and she had not a stitch on underneath,
    just her birthday suit.
    I suddenly stopped in the middle of the road, in what I can only describe as pleasurable amazement.
    Just then to my horror, I heard a loud horn blowing and this double-decker bus bearing down
    on me, Fortunately, it had good brakes and stopped not an inch from my nose.
    I was a bit shaken by this I can tell you.
    I had a chat with my then minister and dear friend and told him the above – all true.
    He roared with laughter.
    I told him I nearly got killed.
    Well, he said, let that be a lesson to you, you may well be excused the first look, but not the second!
    IF LOOKS COULD KILL – in my case, it nearly did!

    • st.joseph says:

      I knew you would disagree, because of something you said in an earlier comment.
      But thank you any way.
      I do not change my mind because of the way others think

      • st.joseph says:

        In case you think that I feel the female or male body is not a thing of beauty,even if deformed.
        There is a big difference in admiration to the seduction button being pressed in as Mike commented.

        Just to clear up any misunderstanding.
        I was young once too! And found boys attractive! But that was before any thoughts of marriage.
        My husband had a bit of an eye for the ladies-he was very handsome.One of his sayings ‘I have to beat the ladies off with sticks’ I know that to be true.
        We had many a disagrement about this.
        When he became a catholic and shortly before he died,in fact not too long before hand,he said to me ‘looking back on my life I realise how immature I was ,and how it must have hurt you- I am sorry’. In all his learning over the years with the catholic faith-he only found out in the end ,what was really important. Gods Love.
        Just a small recollection. No big deal!

  20. st.joseph says:

    Back to the beginning,
    A lady at Holy Mass this morning-whose husband died about 6 weeks ago, and was very upset.
    I could with all honesty say to her. ‘I know how you feel’!

    My heart went out to her in her sorrow.
    We can feel other peoples pain.
    Only Jesus will heal it.
    I hope I am not being ‘presumptious’ again!

    • Nektarios says:

      John Nolan
      It was a warm night.
      But it was seeing this double -decker bus right at nose level did make the hair on the back of my neck stand up! Fancy a bus foisting its attentions on me…arrrgh!!
      No more on this John.

      • Nektarios says:

        st. joseph

        If you want to share personal matters like this with me, suggest you go to email.

  21. John Nolan says:

    Um Gottes Willen, Nektarios, a miniskirt and no knickers in Aberdeen??! You were probably counting the goose-pimples on her bum when you were nearly hit by the bus!

    • st.joseph says:

      Thank you for your kind offer.
      But as we are speaking about personal things like ‘knickers bottoms and bums,’ my thoughts on how I feel and think about sexuality,love and understanding are not private.
      But you are welcome to discuss any matters with me in private- I would be interested,feel free to do so.
      I dont want to give the impression of being a ‘prude’.! That is something I am not!

      • Nektarios says:


        Thank you for your kind offer to discuss matters in private with you, but I have those I
        can go to who have deep spiritualty and understanding.
        I don’t judge anyone, that’s God’s job and I don’t think he has abdicated that role to anyone.
        My story of that incident was not about btms, but even when one is focussed daily on the things of God, the enemy of our souls can and does sometimes attack us, and in my case in that situation, nearly got me killed.

  22. st.joseph says:

    I was only returning your compliment.
    The reason I mentioned my story, was not just for your info, but to show how when we are young we can be easily be led into temptation by the opposite sex if we are not on our guard.As you implied
    The Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand, as Jesus said,and we as Christians understand that.I mentioned my husband as it was pertinant to how you and Mike were speaking. Although he was a christian and a good living person, the devil knows all our weakness’s and preys on them!I dont believe he ever succummed to temptation(not that I know of) but it took years for him to realise that, he only did when he found the Lord through becoming a catholic, and receiving the Holy Eucharist.When mature catholics make references like that -it makes me wonder.Although you were speaking about years ago, Mike as I took it was speaking of the present!
    The Eucharist me is the most important event in our life, not whether we believe the stories of Adam and Eve. Jesus came to teach us how live. That is the Book that I try to live my life by and the Magisterium of the Church.
    There are far more important problems to solve than evolution, or what Richard Dawkins believes
    or Fr Jack Mahoney (for John Candido’s notice)
    But thats just my opinion.

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